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The Murderer

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

Men who go into competition with the world are broken into fragments by the world, and it is such men we love to analyze. But men who do not go into competition with the world remain intact, and these men we cannot analyze. They are always contented men, with modest ambitions. Larry Dunne was that kind of man. All that there is to say about him, therefore, is that he bred pigeons and was happy.

He had, of course, often been manhandled by life; but he had never been disappointed by it. How could he when all he asked of it was pigeons? For example, when he was in the I. R. A. he got into jail as a political prisoner for a whole year; and he was never so contented—the jail was a homing-ground for the city’s pigeons. He joined the Free State army, in which he was excellent at standing to attention—he was six feet two—and futile at everything else. To the profane abuse of his sergeants he presented the smile of a mystic; in despair they put him in charge of the carrier pigeons.

And yet, this unconditional lump of reality, this unre-fracted thought in the mind of God, suddenly did fall into fragments. He fell for the same reason as the first Adam— the first Larry Dunne. For when God was saying, “Finance for J. P. Morgan,” and “Politics for Teddy Roosevelt,” and “Pigeons for Larry Dunne,” He must have added (sotto voce), “But one pigeon he must never control”; just as He said, for Adam, “But one apple he must not eat.” And it was to that one pigeon, that one ambition, that Larry Dunne gave his heart. That pigeon’s name was Brian Boru. Larry got him on his thirty-fifth birthday from his father.

Any evening that summer you could have met Larry at the pigeon club—it sat every night under the canal bridge on the towpath—and you might have guessed in what direction his heart was already moving by the way he talked endlessly without ever mentioning the fatal bird. You might have heard him, towering over the rest of the club, talking of his runts, tumblers, pouters, homers, racers, without ever mentioning Brian Boru; you might have heard how he had a jacobin, and nearly had a scandaroon; how “Pigeons, mind you, must never be washed, only sprayed with rain-water”; what a scoundrel the man in Saint Rita’s Terrace was, a low fellow who kept budgerigars and had once actually said that pigeons were mere riff-raff. “And what’s more, pigeons should be sprayed from the shoulders down—never the head, unless you want them to die of meningitis.” How his father had stolen a sacred pigeon out of an Indian temple, when he was in Rangoon with the Royal Irish, and how the rajah chased him into the jungle for two miles trying to catch him. “And what’s more, you should never dry a pigeon, unless, to be sure, you wrapped him up in warm flannel—which isn’t the same thing.” And anyway, what were budgerigars if not pups off parrots? “Besides — they are not even called budgerigars! They call them budgies—as if anyone would ever dare to call a pigeon a pidgy! Which just shows you!”

But whatever he spoke of, or whomever he spoke to, you might notice that he never spoke to one little runt of a man who kept listening to him with a sly, sneering smile on his face. That was the club-member whose Michael Collins the Second had beaten Larry’s Brian Boru in every race since the season began—beaten the bird that had laid its beak on Larry’s heart.

Nobody knew the history of this Brian Boru; for though Larry’s father swore he was the great-grandson of the Indian rajah’s sacred pigeon, that was, of course, a complete lie. Whatever his pedigree, the bird was a marvel. Such speed! Such direction! Such a homer! A bird that had only one flaw! Time and again, when there was a race, Larry had seen that faint speck of joy come into the sky over the flat counties and the checkered market gardens where he lived, each time half an hour, at the very least, ahead of every other bird in the team; and on one occasion as much as fifty-eight minutes ahead of them, and that in the teeth of a thirty-mile gale. For while other birds had to follow the guiding shore line, or the railway line that dodged the hills, Brian came sailing over mountain top and moor like an arrow from the bow. Time and again, after greeting him with an adoring shout, Larry had gone tearing back down the lane to his tumbledown cottage, to his old father, roaring at him to get out the dainties and the decoys, and to light the primus-stove for some new concoction whose smell was to tempt Brian Boru down to his loft. Back then to the bridge, waving to the sky, calling the bird by name as it came nearer and nearer to the parapet on which stood the club’s time-piece—a clock with a glass front on which there was a blue and green painting of a waterfall. (A bird was not officially home until its owner had tipped the waterfall with its beak.) But . . . time and again the one flaw told. Brian Boru would circle, and Brian Boru would sink, and inevitably Brian Boru would rise again. After about thirty minutes of this he would come down to the telegraph pole over Larry’s backyard; and stay there until some slow coach like Michael Collins the Second had walked off with the race. The bird so loved the air that it could not settle down.

“Oh!” Larry had been heard to moan, as he looked up at the telegraph pole. “Isn’t it a sign? Isn’t it a symbol? Isn’t that poor Ireland all over again? First in the race. Fast as the lightning. But she won’t settle down! That bird has too much spirit—he’s a high-flyer—and aren’t we the same? Always up in the bloody air. Can’t come down to earth.” And then he would beseech the bird, as it looked down at him over its prima-donna chest with a bleary eye, rather like an old damp-nosed judge falling asleep on his bench: “0 Brian Boru I Yeh sweet limb o’ the divil, will you come down? Look! I’ve custards for yeh. I have sowanies for yeh. I have yer loft lined with the sweetest straw.” And he would start clucking and chortling at it. “Coordle-coordle-coordle, Brian Boru-u-u-yu. Coordle-coordle-coordle, Brian Boru-u-u-u-yu.” Or: “Tchook, tchuc, the, the, the, the. Tchook, the, the . . . oh, but I’ll tchook you if I lay me hands on you, you criminal type from British India! Brian, my darling, aren’t you going to come down to me?”

Brian would snuggle his beak on his chest, or make a contemptuous noise like a snore. Then, that night at the bridge —for on race nights Larry simply had to talk about Brian Boru:

“It’s not fair,” Larry would protest. “The rules should be altered. That bird is not being given his due. That bird is suffering an injustice. Sure, it’s only plain, honest reason. The bird is first home in every race—will any member of the club deny it?”

“No, Larry!” they would reply, appeasingly. “No! He’s a grand bird, we all admit it, but a bird who won’t settle is no good. And, for another thing, as we’re sick and tired of telling you, supposing two birds come into sight at one and the same time, who the blazes is going to tell which one of them is first past the winning post—if there’s going to be no winning post?”

“Ah!” Larry would roar, “I know all about that. But sure this bird is home hours before any of your so-called pigeons —cripples I call them.” And then, true to his happy, light-hearted nature, he could not help laughing and making a joke of it, six feet two, and as innocent as a child. “Did I call them cripples? Cripples is too good for them. The one-half of ye must be breeding yeer birds from a cross between penguins and pelicans!”

At which he would recover something of his natural good humor again.

As the season approached its end, however, the bird got fat, and Larry got thin; but the bird retained his speed, and Larry became slow-moving and sullen. Those who had always known him for a gay fellow shook their heads sadly over it. He still entered Brian for the races; but each Saturday, now, he would barely stroll to the bridge when the regular two hours were passed since the birds had been released down the country. And when he would see the familiar speck in the sky he would actually turn his back on it.

At last, the Easter Monday race brought things to a head. That day a passing stranger said to him, as Brian Boru came into sight, “Whose bird is that?”

Larry, leaning with his back and two elbows on the parapet, gave an idle glance over his shoulder at the sky.

“Him? He’s my bird. But—eh—he’s not in the race, you know. He’s what you might call a gentleman pigeon. He’s doing it for fun. That bird, sir, could win any race he wanted to. But the way it is with him, he couldn’t be bothered. Pride is what’s wrong with that bird, sir. Pride! Pride, they say, made the angels fall. Maybe it did. I wish something would make that fellow fall.”

Whereupon, Larry, as if a new understanding of the nature of pigeons had suddenly been vouchsafed to him, turned and gave the circling speck a terrible look. It was the look of a man struck by rejected love. Just at that moment it was that the man who owned Michael Collins the Second said the fatal word, as they all remembered and often recounted long after. He was a shrimp of a creature, a Tom Thumb of a man, who worked as a boots in a hotel and bred his pigeons out of his tips. Seeing that look of misery in Larry’s face he laughed and said, “Why don’t you breed budgerigars, Larry? At least you could take them out of their cage and kiss ‘em!” The row of pigeon-fanciers, staring up at the sky, chuckled. They did not see the look of hate in Larry’s face, or notice the way he slouched away home to his cabin.

There, as he was at his tea, he suddenly heard the clatter of wings like tearing silk, and looking out and up through his cabin window, he saw his bird in its loft, among the custards and dainties, and now and again it glanced towards the cabin door as with disgust. Pushing aside his cup, Larry said to his father—the old man recorded it when there was no use in recording it—”I wish to God, Da, you never gave me that pigeon. That bird isn’t human. He despises me.” And putting his head between his hands he brooded.

Later in the night, while the drizzle of rain fell on him, and the red reflections of the city’s night signs illuminated the sky above the loft, he stood outside until his hair was pricked with the dew of the drizzle, talking now to himself, now to Brian; and though his father kept coming to the door, telling him not to be behaving like a child of two, Larry would not stir. He was like a boy hanging about under the window of his beloved,

“Is it the way you’re faulting me?” he whispered. “Is there something you think I ought to do? But what is there I can do? I can’t alter the rules, and you won’t come down! I know it’s a dishonor. It’s a dishonor for both of us. I know that, Brian my darling, just as well as you know it. But honest God, I don’t think it’s my fault. I brought you up well. I did my best for you. I swear to God above this night I’d lay down my life for you. But, bar flying up in the air myself and bringing you down, what can I do?”

From the loft no reply—except a deep breathing as of sleep.

Once more he entered the bird. Once more the pigeon scorned the earth. Once more the boots mentioned budgerigars, and this time he added that canaries can at least sing. Once more, Michael Collins won the race. That finished it. Larry went home, and on the following Monday he sold every bird, box, loft, packet of food, and medicine bottle that he possessed. With the money he bought an old Smith and Wesson, a thirty-two bore revolver, and five rounds of ammunition from a former pal in the I. R. A. Then, for the last time, he entered the bird, saw it come, as always, first of the team up against the clouds that floated like gigantic bridesmaids over the melting hedgerows, and saw in the veils of the sun how Brian swerved, and circled, and sank . . . and rose again; and did so its usual number of times before making for the inaccessible perch on the telegraph pole. Larry gripped his revolver in his pocket, and while the dozen heads along the bridge shook their commiseration, he waited for the boots to laugh. The boots laughed. At that Larry’s body took on the old fighting slouch; he pulled his hat savagely down over one eye; he buttoned his coat across his chest; he became the old down-looking gunman he had been fifteen years ago when he was in the I. R. A. Then, with a roll of his shoulders like a militia man, a trick learned from his soldier da, he looked at the boots between the shoulder blades, put on the final bit of the gunman’s manner —the ominously casual strolling gait—and walked quietly down the lane. There he found Brian on the pole.

“Brian,” he whispered, but without hope. “Will you come down to me now?” The bird rose and flew away, circled and came back again. “So yeh won’t come down?” whispered Larry out of the corner of his mouth. The bird looked haughtily over the lane roofs, as if contemplating another circle of flight. Before it could stir the shot cracked. With one head-sinking tumble it fell with a plop to the ground. Larry stooped, lifted the hot, twitching body in his palms, gave it one agonized look, and pelted back to the bridge, roaring like a maniac.

“By the Lord Almighty!” they said, when they saw him coming, screeching, with the bird in his palms. “Brian Boru has won at last!”

Shouldering their cluster right and left, Larry snapped the beak to the glass of the clock, displayed the celluloid ring on the stiff ankle, and shouted, pale as the clouds, “Has he won?”

It was only then that they saw the blood oozing down between his trembling fingers; but before they could tell him what they thought of him they also noticed the threatening slouch, and the mad look in his eyes, and the way his hand stole to his pocket.

“Well?” yelled Larry at the boots. “Has he won? Or has he not won? Or maybe you’ll say there’s a rule that a dead bird can’t win a race?”

“Oh, L-l-larry, he’s w-w-won, all right,” trembled the boots.

“Gimme his prize, then!” said Larry.

In fear they gave it to him. It was a new dovecot, painted a lovely green. (“Eau-de-canal” the boots called it afterwards, being the sarcastic brute he was.) Larry grabbed the dovecot, and then, with the reddening beak hanging from his fist, he slouched away. On Monday he sold the dovecot, had the bird stuffed, and put in the window of his lane cabin for the world to see.

You never see Larry Dunne at the canal bridge now. The once-so-gay walks moodily by himself along the towpaths, idly flicking a little twig against the hedges. Or with his father at the other side of the fire, learning off bits from his favorite book, “Who’s Who,” he sits gazing into the dancing devils of flame. The club will be down under the canal bridge, discussing the “fancy.” The sky outside is lurid with the lights of Dublin. In the little curtained window, the pigeon looks with two glassy eyes out over the damp market gardens and the heavily odorous night-fields, staring at the bloody sky.


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