Part III

May to August

Chapter V

AT LAST the spell which had so long brooded over the islands was broken! The weather changed. The rain ceased—temporarily at any rate. A glimmer of sunshine even broke out, and sent dimpling, pinkish reflections one after the other along the sides of the little cooses, which for months had. known no colours but indian ink and lampblack. The rock pools themselves awoke, the oozy things that tenant them seeming to feel the warm impulsion from above, expanding their snaky tentacles and turning their ever-gaping, hungry, jelly-like mouths towards the sunlight.

Down at the old church of Cill-Cananach the spring had asserted itself yet more undeniably. The rocks there were so worn and thinned away as hardly to be visible at all, and over them the sands had spread in a succession of humps and hollows. These humps and hollows were full of shells—sea shells and land shells, tossed together in friendly companionship. You might have picked out of them a winkle or a limpet, and the next minute the yellow-banded cast-off house of a common snail. Bare it was, always must be bare; nevertheless, there was a suggestion of something warmer, of something less austere and grim than those wind-infested shores often gave. Tufts of maiden-hair hung confidingly over the ledges, the rare yellow rock-rose, which, by some odd caprice, finds its home here and here only, showed at intervals its brilliant brown-spotted face, while everywhere the thyme, spread about in great purple masses, gave out its sweet wild smell.

Grania O'Malley, more than most others, rejoiced in this sudden escape from winter into something like a realisation of summer. She had been living for some time back in a sort of tomb—an open-air one, but still a tomb. Now a change had come, and the youth in her rose to it. Murdough Blake, too, grew suddenly more companionable. He actually came of his own accord, and proposed to aid her in some of her accustomed tasks, and they accordingly resumed their nightly occupation of feeding the kelp fire—she, that is to èay, feeding it, he feeding her ears and his own upon the usual gorgeous, if windy, diet of achievements to be performed by himself at some remote, as yet undiscovered, date.

One afternoon she started about four o’clock towards an old ‘clochaun,’ or bee-hive cell, the only variation of architecture Inishmaan boasts, setting aside raths, cabins, ruined churches, and the solitary Italianised villa upon the east shore. She had hoped Murdough might have met her there, he having promised to do so. There was no sign of him, however, so she set to work without loss of time, having brought a sickle for the purpose, and was soon piling a heap of grass upon the flattest of the neighbouring slabs.

This ’clochaun‘—last of a once, doubtless, numerous kindred—was still reasonably intact, though its windows were all but closed, partly from the slipping of the stones above them, partly from the great bosses of lichen and strong-growing sea-thrift which choked their openings. With its roof of over-lapping stones, rounded walls, and floor of earth mixed with sand and shells, it had far more the aspect of some queerly constructed, bird’s-nest, some erratically disposed beast's lair, than anything conceivable as having ever been inhabited by the human biped. At this date, too, it was even less like a human abode than when some skin-clad sixth-century monk inhabited it, for from floor below to roof above it was covered with a dense growth of tall, feathery-looking grass, which sprouted in tufts on either side, and waved in a dense triumphal crop over the small domed summit.

Lying, as it did, within the track over which the O’Malley sisters reigned, they naturally had the right of grazing there, and it was this that had brought Grania out that afternoon, sickle in hand, to clear the walls of their harvest, and carry it home to the calf, whose appetite was a sort of raging lion, nevqr to be appeased, and who regarded a diet largely made up of maiden-hair ferns, red-crane’s-foot, campions, white saxifrages, and such-like flowery provender with natural, if unaesthetic, contempt.

She waited a while after clearing the 'clochaun’ of its grass to give Murdough a chance of appearing, then, as there were no signs of him, and the afternoon was still early, it occurred to her, before saddling herself with her load, that she would go down to the villa, which was no great distance, and see if he was there—a contingency which, from her acquaintanceship with his habits, she had reason to regard as far from improbable.

She did not find him, but there were signs of his having been there not long before, and of his having had company, too—company that, in her opinion, he would have been much better without. A still picturesque, if dilapidated, villa without, it had gradually grown into the likeness of a mere dirty, disreputable little ‘shebeen-shop’ inside. The floor was filthy with accumulated mud, brought in on many pairs of pampooties and never cleared away. Some cracked glasses, a couple of black bottles with jagged, dangerous-looking necks, ‘and several old tin pannikins stood heaped together upon a sort of ledge which served, as a table. There was a barrel, too, half hidden behind some cut furze-bushes in a remote corner. The existence of this barrel was supposed to be a profound secret, but secrets are ill kept in places like Inishmaan, and Grania, like everyone else, knew perfectly well that a barrel of illicit whisky had been put ashore there some three weeks before. How much of that whisky was there left now? she wondered.

She had made her way in by a back window, the secret of opening which Murdough had long ago shown her, and now looked, round her with a sensation of intense disgust. Like most Irishwomen of her class—at all events till age, sympathy, possibly till mere abounding patience and pity break them in—this was to her the sin of sins; the sin that meant starvation, clamorous children, misery of all sorts, shame and the horrors of the workhouse at no very remote future. To-day, too, she was already vexed and disappointed, and therefore less inclined than usual to be tolerant.

'It is the fool he is! My God! it is the fool!’ she muttered fiercely, as she looked about her. ‘What ails him, then, at all, at all?—soaking! soaking! soaking! What ails them all, my God? Weary upon that drink, but it is the curse of the world!’

She went over to the barrel, and shook it viciously, not having anything else at hand to shake. It was nearly empty, for she could hear what little liquor was left splashing about at the very bottom. Had it been full, she would, perhaps, in her wrath, have dragged it out, stove in the bottom and let the stuff run away into the sea. As it was, it did not seem worth while. She came out again, a scowl upon her face, an angry red light shining in her eyes; dropped the window into its place; climbed the hill with swift, wrathful steps, and returned to the ‘clochaun’ and her heap of grass. Here, having collected together the latter with a sort of fierce energy she made it into an enormous stack, got the rope round it, and, having hoisted it up by main force upon her back, turned to go homeward.

As she was slowly mounting from the third to the fourth ledge she saw a figure sitting alone upon a large boulder close to the edge of the track, and perceived, upon coming nearer, that it was old Durane, who was sunning himself in the unaccustomed warmth, enjoying a pipe and the luxury of being free from even the distant sounds of his daughter-in-law's tongue.

Everyone upon Inishmaan regarded it as a high privilege to get old Durane to talk, for he was a stately and reticent old personage, as has been seen, quite satisfied with being excellent company to himself, and not tormented, as most of us are, by any burning desire of being recognised as good company by others as well. Where he was sitting was within the edge of the O’Malleys’ territory, and as Grania with her towering load came up the track he looked up and, perhaps, in recognition of that fact, gave her a civil good-day, with a wave of his hand, and a Banaght lath! Banaght lath!—an old-fashioned mode of salutation, already almost completely gone out of’ fashion.

A sudden impulse came over the girl—an unusual one with her, for she was not gregarious—an impulse to stop a minute and have a chat with the old fellow, the rather that the cord was cutting her shoulder badly, and a rest, therefore, would not be unwelcome.

‘It is down at the old house by the sea— the gentlefolks’ house as they call it—I have been, Mr. Durane, sir,’ she observed in a tone of suitable respect, as she’ sat down beside him on the great smooth top of the boulder. 'And it is a bad way it is getting into, too—a very bad way, so it is.’ Then, after a minute— ‘Was it ever as it was in the old time, when the quality was living upon Inishmaan, that you remember it?' she went on in rather a hesitating tone, her first conversational venture not having, so far, met with any. particular encouragement on the part of’ her neighbour.

Old Durane shifted his pipe from one side of his mouth to the other, looked seaward, spat politely behind him into a fissure, then turned a bright little puckered eye upon her as if to ask her what she was driving at, and presently took up his parable.

‘Is it about Mr. Lynch Bodkin you are asking me, my good girl, if I remember him? Oh, but yes, I do remember him very well; why not? why not? He was a great man, and a good man, Mr. Lynch Bodkin—a very good man! He would have ten, yes, and twelve gentlemen over from Galway or Round’stown at one time to dine with him, and it is the door of the house he would lock if they wanted I to go away early, so he would. “No man has ever left my table till I choose, and no man ever shall,” he would say. “Is it to shame me you would be after, and in my own house, too? There is the red wine, and there is the white wine for you, and, if that will not do, there is the whisky wine too, and ybu may take your choice, gentlemen! “that is what he would say. Oh a very good man he was, Mr. Lynch Bodkin, very. There are no such gentlemen left now—no, none at all.’

Grania listened with profound attention. It all seemed rather odd somehow. In what, she wondered, did Mr. Lynch Bodkin’s particular goodness consist?

‘And was it always drunk the gentleman would be, and the other gentlemen that were with him, too?’ she inquired in a tone of perfect gravity.

‘Drunk? but he was not dnunk at all!—never to say drunk!’ old Durane answered indignantly. ‘And for respect, I would have you to know, my good girl, that there, was not a gentleman in all Galway—no, nor in Mayo either, nor in the whole of Connaught—that was so much thought of as Mr. Lynch Bodkin! It was down there by the sea yonder he would hold his courts, so he would, for it was he that gave all the justice to Inishmaan--yes, and to the other islands as well. And it would have to be upon a fine day, because it would be on the outside of his house that he would hold the court always—yes, indeed, outside of it, down there on the rocks by the sea that it would be held. And, if it was not a very fine day, he would just go out of the door and look up at the sky, and say to the people, “Come again to-morrow, boys!” and they would all go away. Then next day, perhaps, they would come. Oh! but it was a fine sight, I can tell you, to see his honour sitting there in a great gold armchair that would be brought out of the house, out from his own parlour, and put upon the rocks yonder! There would be, perhaps, six or seven people brought up for him to judge at once, and sometimes his honour would put the hand-cuffs on them himself, so he would, for it was in his own house he kept the hand-cuffs always. And if it was anything very bad, oh! very bad indeed they had done, then it was to the “Continent” over beyond there he would send them—into Galway to the jail—because there has never been any jail on Aran.’

‘And would they go into the jail wlmen he sent them?‘ Grania inquired with some surprise.

‘Is it ‘go? Indeed and it is they that must go. My God! yes, and find the boat to go in, too, so they must, and pay for that boat themselves, so they must! It was just a small bit of writing his honour would be good enough to give them, that was all, and they must show it at the jail-door in Galway when they went in. Go? I ‘do not think there was a man or a woman on Inishmaan, no, nor on all Aran, nor anywhere near it, that would not have gone to jail, or anywhere else, if his honour, Mr. Lynch Bodkin, had sent him! A great man, and a very good man too, Mr. Lynch Bodkin! There are no such quality now.’

Old Durane pained, lost apparently in pleasurable retrospection.

But it is back I must be getting,’ he added presently, rising with sudden briskness from his seat. ‘And you, too, my fine girl, with your bundle of grass on your back! Gorra! but it is some young man that should be carrying it for you, and if I was twenty years younger I would not see you so loaded—so I would not. And how is that good woman your sister? No better? Tchah! tchah! that is bad! It is not long you will be keeping her with you, I am afraid! Well, well, it is in God’s hands, and it is the best sort He will have for Himself, and small blame to Him for that, either—no, indeed; small blame to Him! You will tell her that I was asking after her, for it is the sick people that like to hear and know everything that goes on. When my wife was such a long time dying, it was not a cat kittened in all Inishmmaan but she must know about it the first—yes, indeed, always— always the very first ! But I will wish you a good-day now, my fine girl; I will wish you a very good-day.’ And old Durane, who soon tired of any company, except his own, toddled away with a wave of his ragged caubeen that would have done honour to an ambassador.

Grania, too, shouldered her load again after a minute and went ploddingly on her way home. She felt less angry, somehow, since she had talked to this old philosopher, though she could not have explained why. It seemed as if some voice of the past had got between her and her wrath. Would it have been any different in those old times she wondered, or was it always the same? Always? always?

She was no sooner out of sight and round the corner of the next rock than old Durane sat down again, stretching his long thin legs luxuriously before him, so as to let the warm light which played over the top of the ridge reach them. He was not really in any hurry to get home. Rosha and her shrill rasping voice were joys that would keep. He loved the sunshine beyond everything, though he got it so seldom, and on fine days, deserting the cabin, deserting even his favourite stony armchair, would seek out some sheltered cleft of the rocks or hollow amongst the furze, and sit there hour after hour, turning the pebbles in front of him about with his stick, and smiling slowly to himself, sometimes muttering over, and over some cabalistic word—a word which, for the moment, had the effect of recreating for him the past, one which, even to himself, had grown almost spectrally remote, so dim and far away was it. A queer old ragged Ulysses this, whose Ithaca was that solitary islet set in the bleak and inhospitable Atlantic! Far out of sight, and rarely now to be stirred by anything modern, lay hidden away in the recesses of that old brain of his a whole phantasmagoria of recollections, beliefs, prejudices, traditions; bits of a bygone feudal world, with all its habits and customs; bits of a hardly more remote and forgotten legendary world; the world of the primitive Celt—a big, elemental world this, glorious with the light of a still unspoiled future—fragments of fifty creeds, fragments of a hundred modes’ of thought, all dead enough, Heaven knbws, yet alive for the moment under that weather-beaten old caubeen of his. This peculiarly Irish form of brain-endowment has never yet found expression in art—never, so far as can be judged by symptoms, is in the least likely to do so—but it has from time immemorial served as the source of a good deal of odd discounted entertainment to its possessors, and that, if not the same thing, is perhaps as good a one—possibly even better.