Part III

May to August

Chapter IV

THE ART of weaving is one that has been practised upon the Aran isles for a longer time than it is easy to reckon. It cannot, however, be said to have, so far, reached any very high point of perfection. At the time at which this story opened there were no fewer than four professional weavers upon Inishmaan. Dumb Denny O'Shaughnessy, however, had always been considered to stand at the top of his profession, especially as the maker of the thick yellowish-white flannel used by the women for their bodices and by the men for their entire suits. Dumb Denny had now been dead some months, but the weaving trade was still carried on by his nephew Teige, though there were not wanting captious housewives ready to cry out that time stuff produced by him was of a very inferior quality to that produced by old Denny. Changes, no matter of what sort or from what cause, are naturally condemned in such places as Inishmaan.

    Grania had for some time back been intending to get Honor the materials for a new bedgown, the only garment the poor woman now ever needed. Honor herself had deprecated the expense, declaring that the old one did well enough, though her elbows. had long been through the sleeves—a fact not to be concealed whenever her old striped shawl, the only other garment she wore, fell back and left them exposed Patches might perhaps have been fitted to them, but. unfortunately Grania’s various accomplishments did not include any very intimate acquaintance with a needle, her hands being much more at home with an oar or a pitch-fork. Honor, for an Aranite, had been a fairly neat worker in her day, but that day was long past. In any case, new flannel Grania was determined to get, and when she had set her mind resolutely upon anything it was not likely to be long delayed.

    A few days later, therefore, she set. off for the O’Shaughnessy cabin to give the order to Teige, first driving ‘Moonyeen’ down to enjoy an hour’s illicit feeding upon the bent-grass on the seashore. This small act of habitual larceny accomplished, she followed the level platform of rock till she reached the corner of the island, which brought her opposite to the little spit or isthmus by means of which the islet upon which the O'Shaughnessys' cabin stood joined on to its larger neighbour.

    The weather was as bad as ever. Though it was now mid-May the day felt like March. An ill-conditioned blast—easterly rather than westerly—seemed to be waiting for the passer-by at every corner. As she walked along the prospect was enough to set even native teeth on edge. In every direction spread the eternal grey sheets of rock, broken into fissures, battered by the storms, half melted under dissolving torrents of rain, their few patches of greenery shrunk away into the fissures for warmth and safety. Beyond lay the unvarying sweep of grey sea, or of land almost as cheerless. Overhead the same eternal cloud-processions. No clear sky anywhere. On they went, those clouds ; hurrying endlesslv; grey, shapeless masses entangled in one another; clutching at one another with bodiless fingers, rolling away into the distance for ever and ever; always going on, and yet never gone.

    Especially was the wind cold and boisterous upon the narrow tongue of rock that linked the O'Shaughnessys' territory to the rest of the world. It seemed to be literally sweeping in from all sides at once as Grania made her way across, avoiding as far as possible the oily coils of weed, strewn over it, and, having reached the other side, clambered up the short steep bit of cliff which intervened between it and the cabin.

    The door stood wide open,, so that before she reached it she could see right through the cabin and out to the sea upon the other side. There were two windows, one on the same side as the door, looking south towards Inishmaan, the other looking northward. It was through this one that the grey light of the sea lying below came so distinctly, shining upon the floor and walls with something of the cold sheen and glitter of a sea-cave. Between the two windows stretched the loom, a rickety structure of indistinguishable hue, its beams half rotten, and bent and warped with time, the very cords on which the work in progress was stretched being so worn and old that it seemed impossible they could continue to serve their purpose much longer. In place, too, of a metal sustainer a small bar of wood held up the work in progress—in the present case a piece of the usual whitish flannel of the island, the same that Grania had herself come to order.

    Teige O’Shaughnessy was sitting bent double over his work, but he suddenly lifted his head, and started erect with a look of sheepish joy when he saw his visitor.

    Poor Teige! He was not much less ill-favoured now than he had been six years earlier. On the contrary, a fall which he had had while puffin-hunting had resulted in a lameness which, though it did not hinder him from walking, made it painful to him. As Teige the boccach, or cripple, he was known all over the islands, where his freckled face, red hair, and halting gait was a familiar object in every cabin, as he came and went with his bundles of flannel and coarse homespun friezes.

    Standing behind his loom, whose beams and pulleys filled nearly the whole interior of the cabin, his poor, ugly face looked up at his visitor from under its red thatch with a peculiarly wistful expression, an expression not often seen on a man’s face, very often upon that of some affectionate and rather unusually ill-used dog. Yet Grania had never ill-used Teige O'Shaughnessy. At least, had she? The question is not so easily answered as may at first sight seem. Given a woman with a larger share of plain human affection than she can conveniently dispose of—an impatient woman, hot tempered and vehement—let her have given away that affection where it is, to say the least, indifferently responded to; let her have someone else at hand to whom she is as the sun, moon, and stars shinning in their glory—as wonderful and hardly less unapproachable—what sort of treatment is she likely to mete out to that person? The experience of larger places than Inishmaan may be taken to supply the answer!

    Grania’s own impression, had she been asked, was that she was very good indeed to Teige O’Shaughnessy—now. She allowed him, that is to say, to do a multitude of odd jobs for her that she would never for an instant have dreamt of troubling Murdough with. When Honor had been well enough, for instance, it had been his office to help row the two sisters over to Aranmore to mass upon a Sunday morning, one for which he was well fitted, as he was as expert in the management of a curragh as she was herself, though his lameness made him less serviceable in other tasks, such as digging, or carrying heavy loads up hill.

    A patient, hard-working, poor boccach, that everyone admitted him to be—admitted it with the contempt which such grovelling qualities naturally awaken in Ireland. Indoors, especially, his handiness was really degrading. The earthen floor of the cabin was actually reported to be swept by him, not once a month, but every morning before he settled down to his day’s work. The two tiny-paned windows were both extraordinarily clean, and the glass literally whole, so that the cabin was an exceptionally light one, in spite of its space being almost wholly blocked up by the loom and its various appurtenances.

    To anyone entering at that moment, a first glance would have revealed no figure but that of the weaver himself. As Grania advanced into the cabin, however, an oddlooking, little, doubled-up, red object rose from a corner of the hearth where it had been squatting, and came towards her, making queer bobs, ducks, and uncanny grimaces as it did so.

    This was deaf and dumb Biddy O’Shaughnessy, twin sister to the man lately dead. Biddy had always been reckoned ‘queer’ upon Inishmaan, and her infirmity had naturally tended to cut her off from her fellows. She was also said to be malicious, though how a creature so helpless could be supposed to have the means of injuring anyone, it was hard to say. Whatever affection she had to give had certainly all been concentrated upon her twin-brother, and, since his death, she had grown more elf-like and uncanny than ever, as if the one tie that linked her to humanity had now been broken. She was asserted by her neighbours to detest her nephew Teige, though for this assertion also there was probably only the wildest surmise to go upon, and certainly Teige had never shown any signs of being aware of the fact himself.

    Upon Grania the old woman’s presence had always. produced a distinctly unpleasant impression—not exactly of fear, not exactly of repulsion, but of something not very far removed from both. She had never got over that all but insane access of terror which the sight of the two old twins had inspired in her on the evening when, as the reader will remember, she had peeped in as a child at the cabin-window, and then torn madly home in consternation to Honor. Biddy was known, too, to have the power of seeing the ‘gentry,’ namely, the shee or sidh—beings who creep out from every mouse-hole and from behind every rafter the minute a family has gone to sleep, but which few people have the power of seeing and actually holding communication with. Of these privileged few, Biddy O'Shaugnessy was universally held to be one. .

    After uttering sundry queer clacking noises something like the notes of a bald coot, which were intended to serve as greetings, the old woman seemed to forget her visitor, going back to her former place and squatting down again beside the fire. Meanwhile Grania proceeded to explain to Teige the sort of flannel she wanted to have for Honor, handing him at the same time a mass of wool which had been spun by themselves several winters before. The piece of flannel then upon the loom being of the same character, though coarser than the one she wanted, she took hold of it to show Teige how she wished it to be different, explaining that she wanted Honor to have the warmest and softest flannel possible. Poor Honor! she was so thin that everything fretted her skin and hurt her nowadays.

    While they stood there talking the cold light reflected off the sea shone upon their two heads bent over the loom, Grania’s dark one, from which her shawl had dropped, and Teige’s carrotv poll, the fiery redness of which was only modified by the dust that had gathered thickly on it in the course of his day’s work. The tide rose higher and higher, wetting the rocks and stranded, half-dry seaweeds, curling round the small indentations, and shooting noisily upwards in long jets of spray. It seemed as if the little house on top must presently be overtaken and washed away by it. They had to raise their voices almost to a shout so as to hear one another above the tumult.

    Old Biddy, vexed perhaps at being left out of the conference, presently began to move about, uttering the queer, disjointed grunts and croaks which were her chief contributions to conversation. First she chattered vehemently to herself; next, apparently, to someone or something sitting amongst the smouldering embers of the turf; next she began to stare at the rafters overhead, nodding and blinking at them, as if some friendly or inquisitive face was peering down from between their interstices. After a while, growing tired of these entertainments, she crept over towards the loom, making her way in and out of its crazy woodwork with a deftness born of long practice. In this way she got by degrees to the other side, unobserved by the two absorbed over the discussion of the flannel. For a while she contented herself with gazing up at them, her wrinkled old monkey-face puckered into a variety of quaint grimaces—a wonderful old human gargoyle, beyond the imagination of even a Gothic carver adequately to reproduce. All at once a new notion seemed to seize her, and the next time the two heads approached one another, bending over the woof, Teige explaining something and Grania listening, she darted forward, and, with a sudden, impish clutch, caught at them and held them tightly together, so that for a few seconds the two faces were forcibly pushed cheek to cheek, the total unexpectedness of the movement hindering either of them from resisting.

    Grania was the first to pull herself away, and she did it furiously. The very touch of the old creature was like the touch of‘a toad or a spider to her—it sent a shiver of disgust through her whole body. She turned angrily, her arm was up, she was about to strike. She stopped short, however, at sight of the crooked, diminutive body and grinning monkey-face before her. Old Biddy, on her side, bobbed, ducked, and chattered, blinking her eyes, a little frightened evidently, yet proud, too, and pleased by her own successful piece of mischief. Grania, thereupon, swept round upon Teige. Someone should be responsible—someone should be made to pay for the insult! Teige was standing in the same place beside the loom, his face red as a lobster, as red as his hair, but his eyes shining—shining as they had probably never shone in his life before. The poor, ill-favoured buccach was for the moment transfigured. Grania stared at him in sheer astonishment. What did he mean? What was he staring at? What on earth possessed him? She felt confused and startled. Something was passing through her, a sudden impression, she did not as yet know what it was, but it was something new—something at once new and disturbing—somethmg that meant—What, she asked herself confusedly, did it mean?

    With a sudden, angry clutch she swept up her shawl which was lying on the floor, and, without another word, ran out of the cabin down the steep bit of pathway which led to the narrow causeway, now narrower than ever from the fast encroaching tide.

    Lame as lie was, Teige, being nearer to the door, contrived to scramble after her, and caught her up just as she reached’the other side.

    'Auch, Grania! Grania O'Malley!—'tisn't angry you’d be with one who hasn’t the sense of life in her at all, at all?’ he cried deprecatingly—-'a creature that can’t speak with her tongue, nor hear with her ears, nor understand, nor a thing! What is she but a poor old lost one out and out, old Biddy, God help her! Sure, Grania O’Malley, ‘tisn’t yourself would turn upon such a one as that? Arrah, I know you wouldn’t.’

    But Grania was not to be reasoned with. She pulled her hand furiously away, almost pushing him down the rocks in her anger. What did he mean by trying to stop her? what did he mean by staring at her? what did lie mean by—? Had they all gone mad to-day—herself into the bargain? Why did he look at her like that?—look at her as no one else had ever— why did he—why did she—? Her head spun round; she hurried on.

    It was like an idea dropped out of another world, a world remote from Inishmaan and Aran altogether. It set her whole frame in a whirl, not as regards Teige—he was a chip, a straw, nothing—but because it chimed in with something—a tune, a notion—she could not tell what, which had often sung through her brain and tingled in her ears, been heard now and then for a moment, sometimes almost distinctly, then lost, then heard again. What was it? What was the name of that tune? Was it inside herself or outside, or where was it?

    Scrambling over the rocks, she hurried on, forgetting in her excitement to fetch home Moonyeen, forgetting the flannel, forgetting everything but this new voice, buzzing, buzzing unceasingly in her ears. Presently she found that she had overshot the path by a considerable distance, so stopped a minute, perplexed and giddy, close to the edge of the cliff. Below her lay the coose where Murdough kept his curragh, and beyond it she could see the little old villa, standing upon its narrow green platform, backed up behind and at the side with rocks. On a nearer view, it would have been seen to have grown even more tumbledown, than when we saw it last; its rusty ironwork still more rusty, and still more fantastic in its decrepitude. At this distance, however, it was practically unchanged, and, ruined as it was, it shed an air of classic dignity, of half-effaced importance and prosperity upon the spot where it stood, such as no other spot on Inishmaan certainly boasted.

    Grania stood for a moment on the edge of the cliff, staring down at it; her black brows almost meeting in the intensity of her gaze, her arms locked one over the other on her chest, her face working. Suddenly she turned with a gesture of impatience, and looked away from it towards the other side, the side where there was no villa, and where there was nothing to be seen, nothing, that is, but the sea and the bare sea-washed sheets of limestone. Ledge above ledge, layer above layer, these last rose; straight, horizontal, clean cut as if laid by some builder’s hands, a mass of crude, uncompromising masonry. Under that heavy, lowering sky it was about as cold and as menacing a prospect as could well be imagined—a prospect, too, that had a suggestion somehow about it of cruelty. ‘Look well at me,’ it seemed to say, ‘you have only to choose. Life up there on those stones! death down here upon these—there, you see, where the surf is licking the mussels! Choose—choose carefully—take your time—only choose!’

    No one was in sight, not even a cow, only a few seagulls overhead, and with a quick impulse, born of her own hurrying thoughts, the girl suddenly flung up her arms, uttering at the same time a low cry, half of anger, half of sheer brain-tormenting perplexity. It was like the cry of some dumb creature, vague, inarticulate, full of. uncomprehended pain, and of still less comprehended dissatisfaction. She could not have explained why she did it, what she meant by it, or what was amiss. Nothing had happened. She was in no trouble, everything was the same as usual; only—only—-

    It relieved, yet it startled her. She looked round, fearing to have been overheard. A tuft of nodding yellow tansy looked up with an air of impudent intelligence into her face. Whatever its thoughts may have been, however, it kept them to itself, and merely nodded the harder.

    With another shamefaced glance around, Grania turned and made her way, this time straight home to the cabin where Honor was waiting for her, and where she had to listen to a long, tender renmonstrance upon the folly of wasting money upon clothes for the likes of her. What was the good of it at all, at all? Was it for the burying she wanted them? Didn’t everyone know it was a sin and a shame to be buying clothes for people that could never live to wear them out? Wickedness, so it was, God knew!—no better. Grania listened to all this silently, then equally silently went about her work. All day she experienced a startled sort of feeling. Something seemed to have happened. And yet no—upon second thoughts she remembered nothing had happened. It was as if something had got inside herself, or into the air—she could not tell where. That tune; what was it? who had sung it to her? what was its name? what did it all mean? By degrees, however, the impression began to pass away, till by bed-time it had almost gone.

    As for Teige O'Shaughnessy he remained at least ten minutes standing upon the same spot where they had parted, gazing with the same air of sheepish remonstrance at the piece of rock where he had seen her last. Then, with a grunt and a look of perplexity, he returned, scratching his carroty head, to the cabin, and set to work again upon the piece of flannel stretched upon the loom. The tide continued to rise; the little peninsula was presently converted into an island; he and old Biddy were as effectually cut off from the rest of Inishmaan as though an ocean had rolled between them and it. She was back now in her usual place beside the chimney, her eyes fixed with a look of eager, unblinking fascination upon a particular spot amongst the rafters. All at once she sprang up, made a dart forward, and caught at something, small enough, apparently, to be contained in one hand, then retreated, gibbering and chuckling, to her stool again, as delighted evidently as a child that has captured a butterfly. Cautiously she opened finger after finger, at last the whole hand; peeped round each portion of it separately, examined front, back, and sides, every part of it, her wrinkled old face twisted into an expression first of high glee, next of incredulity. Finally, with a grimace of sudden disappointment and malice, she turned, shaking her fist and chattering her teeth furiously, in the direction of her nephew, evidently regarding him as in some way or other responsible for the disappointment.