Part III

May to August

Chapter VI

GREGORY SOUND, Foul Sound, South Sound, every sound around the three islands was full of mackerel.

        For several days all the available curraghs belonging to Inishmaan, and the two other islands as well, had been out after them the whole day long. The Aran folk are not particularly expert fishermen, and their share of the herring fishery, the chief take of the year, is apt to be a meagre one. They have neither the tackle nor the hereditary skill of the Galway Claddagh men—though even these fish less and worse than their fathers did, and let the lion’s share of the yearly spoil fall into the hands of strangers. As for the once famous “sunfishing,” it has become a myth: the fish are scarcer, but even when they do appear hardly an attempt is made to secure them.

    Grania O’Malley and Murdough Blake were out alone together in a curragh in the South Sound. They were fishing at a distance of several miles from their own island, beyond the least of the three islands, Inisheer, and between it and the opposite coast of Clare. The sun shone brightly, the sea was almost a dead calm, yet the great green rollers kept their boat incessantly on the move—slowly, slowly up one side of a smooth green glassy ridge; then slowly, slowly down the other side—down, down, down, sleepily, quietly, all but imperceptibly, into the hollow of the next glassy valley; then up, up, up, to the very top of the one beyond.

    Despite this movement the sea had the effect of seeming to have a film of glass laid over it, so unbroken was its surface. You might have traced the same roller which had just lifted their own boat's keel miles upon miles away, till it finally broke against the Hag's Head or got lost somewhere in the direction of Miltown Malbay. Everywhere the black bows of other curraghs peered up mysteriously, looking like the heads of walruses, dudongs, or some such sea-habitants; now visible above the shining surface; now lost to sight; then suddenly reappearing again. It seemed as if they were amusing themselves by some warm-weather game of floating and diving.

    Summer had come at last, there was no doubt of that fact! As Murdough and Grania walked down to the boat the air had been full of all manner of alluring promises. The year had at last awakened, and even those small epitomes of desolation, their own islands, had caught the infection, their usual ascetic aspect having given way to-day to one of quite comparative frolicsomeness—the sort of frolicsomeness suggestive of a monk or a nun upon an unwonted holiday. At the point where they had got into the curragh the sand was one mass of silene, spreading its reticulated net in all directions. Across this green net the still young rays of the sun had struck, lighting up the thin long stems and white pendulous flower-heads, which sprang up again every time they were trodden down, nodding, and nodding frantically, in breezy, reckless defiance of any such accidents.

    Even out here, in the middle of the bay, there was an extraordinary sense of lightness—a sense of warmth, too, of gaiety and elation. The distant headlands, generally swathed to the very feet in clouds, wore to-day an air of quite Italian-like distinctness, joined to a not at all Italian-like sense of remoteness and distance. It was a day of days, in short! A day to write up in red chalk; a day to remember for years; not a day, alas! likely soon to recur again.

    Grania felt foolishly happy. Not for a long time, not since she had first known for certain that Honor must die, hardly since she and Murdough had been children together, had she felt so light, so rid of all tormenting thoughts, thoughts all the worse and more tormenting from their being so imperfectly understood. Her heart seemed to leap and bound under her old patched bodice, though she sat erect and decorously upon her narrow thwart, watching the line as if no other thought for her existed in the whole world. Inside that old bodice, however, a whole dance of’ glad young fancies were flitting to and fro and up and down. The world was good, after all, she thought—good! good! good!—at least sometimes!

    Mackerel-fishing is, fortunately, not a business of too strenuous a nature to be enjoyable. Your line bobs easily and pleasantly along the surface in the wake of your boat. Your bait—a shining object of some sort, more often than not a scrap of the skin of the first victim—is artfully attached, not to the killing hook, but to the one immediately above it. At this the fish snaps—why, no fisherman can tell you—is caught by the hook below, pulled in, tossed to the bottom of the boat, your line is out again, and so the game goes merrily on—merrily for all save the mackerel, whose opinion naturally does not count for much one way or other.

    Grania and Murdough were both expert fishers. She, if anything, was the more expert of the two, and her hand the quickest to draw in the line at the right moment. Her attention, too, never varied—in appearance—from the business in hand, whereas his was wont to be afloat over the whole surrounding earth, sea, sky, and universe at large. His powers of concentration were not, it is to be feared, improving. It is conceivable that many successive evenings devoted to the society of Shan Daly, Paddy O'Toole, Kit Rafferty—otherwise ‘Kit the Rake‘—also to that of the ‘big barrel hidden away’ under the furze-bushes in the old villa, are not exactly conducive to a young man’s steadiness of hand or his business-like habits. So far, happily, this one’s natural good looks, and the all but absolutely open-air life he led, had kept him from the prematurely sodden air of the young topers of our towns. Still, there were signs, slight but significant, pointing in one direction—pointing grimly towards a brink which, once crossed, there is seldom, if ever, any crossing back again.

    To-day, however, these signs, were happily in abeyance. His eye was bright, his skin clear, the voluble superabounding Gaelic ran as nimbly as ever over his tongue; his shoulders squared themselves as broadly as ever against the soft green glassiness behind him; he looked as vigorous and as comely a specimen of youthful peasant manhood as heart of maiden sweetheart could desire.

    On they floated—easily, buoyantly. Now and then one or other would give a few strokes of the oar, so as to keep the curragh moving and hinder it from turning round. The high-piled, somewhat picturesque point of Inisheer was from this position the nearest land in sight. Over it they could see the crenelated top of O’Brien’s castle, which rises incongruously out of the middle of an ancient rath, a rath so ancient that its origin is lost in the clouds, and even tradition refuses to find a name for it, so that archaeology has to put up regretfully with a blank in its records. Farther on three small grey cabins stood out, the stones in their walls distinguishable separately even at this distance; beyond these again twinkled a tiny, weed-covered lake with a crooked cross beside it; then three or four big monumental stones running in a zigzag line up one side of a narrow bohereen; then some more grey, cabins, gathered in a little cluster; then a few stunted, dilapidated thorn-trees, bent double by the gales; than the broken-down gable-end of a church, and then the sea again.

    'Is it to Galway those will be going, I wonder?' Grania asked presently, pointing to a curragh which three men were ,just lifting over a little half-moon of sand, preparatory to launching it.

    ‘No, it will not be to Galway, Grania O’Malley, they will be going—not to Galway at all,’ Murdough answered, turning round to watch them and speaking eagerly. ‘It is out to sea they will be going—to the real Old Sea beyond! That one there is Malachy Flaherty—the big man with the chin beard—and that is Pat Flaherty in the middle, and the little one yonder, with the red round his waist, is Macdara Flaherty. It is all Flaherties they are, mostly, on Inisheer; yes, and it is all pilots mostly they are, too. Oh, but it is a good business, the piloting business!—my faith and word yes, a very good, fine business, I can tell you, Grania O’Malley! It is three pounds English, not a penny less, they will make sometimes in one afternoon—three pounds and more too! Macdara Flaherty, he has told me himself he did often make that when he would be out alone by himself. Macdara Flaherty! think of that! And who is Macdara Flaherty, I should like to know, that he should get three pounds? Just a poor little pinkeen of a fellow, not up to my shoulder! Glory be to God! but it is a good grand business, the piloting business, and if I had been reared a pilot it is much money I should have made by this time, yes indeed, ard put by too, so I should. It was very great shame of my father and of my mother that they did not bring me up to the piloting business, so it was! A big, black, burning shame of the two of them!'

    Grania listened with a sort of sleepy satisfaction.. Of late Murdough’s gorgeous visions of what, under other and totally different circumstances, he would have done and achieved had been less a pleasure to her than might have been expected. It is conceivable that they jarred a. little too much with the actual reality. To-day, however, her mood was so placid that nothing seemed to touch it. She went on, nevertheless, with her fishing. That, at least, was wonderfully good. The mackerel kept rushing insanely at the bits of dancing, glittering stuff which lured them; snapping at them so idiotically and so continuously that already quite a big pile lay at the bottom of the boat.

    After fishing along the coast of Inisheer they drifted in the afternoon some little distance southwards with the tide, until it carried them nearly opposite to the cliffs of Moher. They could, see the huge pale-grey boundary wall, with all the joints and scars on its face and the white fringe of water at its feet. Then, when the ‘tide , had again turned, they followed it slowly back, till they had once more come to nearly the same spot they had occupied in the morning.

    As the dusk came on Grania’s contented mood seemed only to deepen and to grow more conscious. A vague, diffused enjoyment filled her veins. She wished for nothing, hoped for nothing, imagined nothing, only to go on and on as they were doing at present—she and Murdough always together, no one else near them—on and on and on, for ever, and ever, and ever. It was like one of her old childish visions come true.

    A soft wind blew towards them from the Atlantic, sweeping across their own three islands.. You might have thought that, instead of that inhospitable waste of saltness, some region of warmth, fertility, and greenness lay out there in the dim and shadowy distance. The air appeared to be filled with soft scents; an all-pervading impression of fertility and growth, strong to headiness, seemed to envelope them as they sat there, one behind the other. Now and then a dog barked, or the far-off sound of voices came from one of the islands; otherwise, save the movements of the boat and the soft rush of the water around them, not a sound was to be heard. The warm air caressed Grania; a sense of vague intoxication and happiness such as she had never before felt seemed to envelope her from head to foot. As it grew darker a quantity of phosphorescence began to play about upon the surface, dropping in tiny green rivulets from off their oars as they lifted them. It seemed to her as if the queer green glittering stuff was alive, and was winking at her; as if it was telling her stories; some of them old stories, but others quite new—stories that she had certainly never heard or never understood before.

    She looked at Murdough. They were nearly touching one another, though his back was to her. Beyond him everything was blurred and confused, but his shoulders in their yellowish flannel ‘baudeen’ stood out square and well-defined. A vague desire to speak to him filled her mind. She wanted it so much that it perplexed her, for what was there particularly to say to him at the moment? She did not know, all she knew was that she did want it—wanted it to a degree that was almost painful, while at the same time something else seemed to stop her, to stand in the way, to forbid her speaking to him. It was all very queer! She could not tell what had come to herself that evening.

    The most unconventional of all countries under the sun, Ireland has a few strict conventions of its own, and,one of the strictest of those conventions was standing like a wall of brass right in her path at that moment. True, she and Murdough were betrothed—might be said to be as good as married—but what then? Even if they had been married; married a hundred times, convention stronger than anything else, the iron convention of their class, would have forbidden anything like open demonstrativeness from him to her, still more therefore from her to him. She knew this; knew it without arguing or thinking about it; would not have dreamt of questioning it; could not, in fact, have done so, for it was ground into the very marrow of her bones, was a part of the heritage, not of her race alone, but of her own particular half of that race. All the same, nature, too, was strong; the witchery of the night was strong; the whole combining circumstances of the moment were exceedingly, exceptionally strong. There was no resisting them entirely; so, stopping for a moment in her leisurely rowing, she stretched out her hand and laid it lightly for a moment upon his shoulder, at the same time holding up the oar so as to let the shining particles run down the blade into the sea in a tiny green cascade.

    ‘It is all on fire it seems to be, does it not, Murdougheen?’ she said tremulously.

    He started. ‘My faith and word, yes, it does, Grania a veelish,’ he answered. ‘It is very like fire—very. A man would think that he might light his pipe by it; so he would! It is very strange; very!'

    The intoxicating air had stolen, perhaps, a little into his veins also. And whether spontaneously or merely in mesmeric response to her touch upon his shoulder, he too stopped rowing, and turning a little backwards, rather to his own astonishment put his arm about her waist.

    Grania blushed scarlet. Her head swam, but without a moment’s hesitation she put her face up to his, and they kissed one another. It was a genuine lovers’ kiss, their first, although they had been over a year engaged, a fact of which she was immediately and overwhelmingly conscious.

    Profiting by the cessation of his labours, Murdough presently pulled out his pipe, lit it—though not by the phosphorescence—sucked at it for a few minutes, and, thus refreshed, embarked upon a new disquisition upon the great advantages to be gained by being a pilot.

    Yes, indeed, it was himself ought to have been one, so he ought, and if he had been a pilot, it is the best pilot upon the three islands he would have been—by God! yes—the very best! It was out beside the Brannock rocks—the farthest rocks of all—he would have stopped mostly, and stopped, and stopped, and stopped, no matter what storm might be blowing at the time, and waited until a ship came. And the very minute a ship came in sight—a real big ship, that is, from the East Indies, or, maybe, America, or, better still, California—then he would have rowed out to her all by himself. He would not have taken anyone with him, no, for he did not want to be sharing his money with anyone, but he would have rowed and rowed, out and out, till he got into the middle of the big Old Sea. And there he would have waited till the ship came close up to him, and then it was up upon the deck of it he would have got—yes, indeed up upon the deck. And It was the captain himself, and no other, that must have come to speak to him, for he would not have spoken a word to any other man, only to the captain himself. And when the captain came he would have asked if he knew the way up to the Galway quay, and if he knew every shoal and rock and sandbank there was in the bay. And he would have thrown back his head like that and laughed—yes, laughed out loud, he would, at the captain, for to go asking him such a foolish question. And he would have said that he did, and no man better, nor so well, not on all the islands, nor on the Continent, nor in Dublin itself—‘And if you do not want me, and if you will not pay me my full big price, it is not I that will go with you, no, not one half foot of me. And if I do not go with you, it is upon the rocks you will go this night, my fine captain, you and all your poor men—yes, indeed, upon the rocks this night, and be drowned every one of you—for there is no other man on Inisheer, no, nor on any of the islands, that dare bring you into Galway upon such a night, only myself alone. And I will not bring you in for less than my full price, so you need not think it. No, indeed, for why would I venture my life for nothing? Great King of Glory! that would be a foolish thing for any man to do—a very foolish thing! Is it for a fool you take me, my fine captain, with your gold lace upon your sleeves? Begorrah, if you do you are wrong, for I am no fool at all, so do not think it. Only I should be sorry for you and your poor men if they were all drowned, as they will be, God knows, this night, if you do not give me my full price!’

    His voice went on and on, rising, falling, then rising again, the guttural many-syllabled Gaelic flowing and flowing, like a stream. Some belated cormorants came flying across the water from Aranmore, uttering dull croaks as they went. The heavy smoke of the kelp-fires trailed across the bay, and as the curragh passed through it, filled their nostrils with its sharp, briny scent, lying behind them as they passed like a bar of solid cotton. Sometimes, in the interest of his narrative, Murdough’s voice rose to a shout, as he waved his arms in the air, shook his fist at an imaginary opponent, or looked appealingly at his auditor for a response.

    Grania, however, never uttered word or syllable. She hardly looked at him, could not have told afterwards what he had been talking about, or what had passed them by. They took to their oars again after half an hour, and rowed slowly homeward, past the western extremity of the smaller island, foreshortened here to a low conical hill; across the Foul Sound, where the swell was breaking in puffs of spray across the skerries; on and on till once more their own island stood before them, its big rath making it seem from this point lower even than usual. It was very dark indeed now. They had to feel their way as they best could round the outlying reefs, all but grinding against them, till they finally ran the curragh ashore upon the single spit of firm sand just below the old church of Cill-Cananach. Dark or light, hot or cold, sunlight, starlight, moonlight, it was all one that evening to Grania. The world itself seemed to have changed; to stand still; to be a new world. Everything about and around her had changed—the sea, the sky, the boat, the rocks, the shore—above all, herself; herself and Murdough. She knew now what she had only guessed before—knew it through every pulse and artery of her body. The old walls had broken down. The common heritage was at last hers—hers and, as it seemed to her, his also. They loved; they were together. How, then, could the world fail to have changed?

    Even after they had at last touched the shore; after she had got out of the boat and had helped Murdough to pull it up on the sands ; after they had left it behind them, with that queer, twinkling greenish water still flapping fantastically around its sides; even then she seemed to herself to be still in a dream, still to be dazed, still to be walking amongst the clouds. She only came back fully to life and to ordinary reality again when they had left the sands, and the sea, and the green, uncanny phosphorescence behind them, and were mounting soberly, one after the other, up the narrow, shingle-covered track which led to the cabin.