Part IV

September Again

Chapter VI

THE DISAPPOINTMENT had no effect whatever upon her determination of somehow or other getting to Father Tom that night. There was no one else upon Inishmaan whom she could appeal to with any hope of success, and therefore she did not think of appealing to anyone else. She would go by herself, and she would go at once. Her course was now at least a simple one.

    She had to return in the first instance to their own cabin to get out a pair of old oars which hung in the cow-house, but She did not intend to see Honor again, certainly not to let Honor see her. The bare thought of, for a second time that evening, meeting the look of mute dismay which had met her after her first unsuccessful quest went through her like a knife. Anything would be better, she felt, than to see that again; anything, anything.

    She stole accordingly to the cow-house like a thief, and, having got down the oars, started again for the landing-place. Moonyeen turned her spotted head and lowed reproachfully, which brought her back at once to see if there was enough for her to eat, and she hastily shook down a couple of armfuls of weedy grass, cut a few days before in the clefts, and left it near her. That would do till the morning. It was all the cut grass she had by her. To-morrow she must not forget to go and cut some more, she reflected as she did so.

    For the second time she had got as far as the old boulder, and for the second time she paused and looked back. Though only a few yards away the cabin was already invisible; the fog making it a mere blur, like some phantom cabin seen in a dream. A sudden intense yearning came over Grania to see the inside of it once again, and a yet greater yearning for one, only one more sight of Honor’s face. She must see that, she felt; she could not and would not go out into that big hungry sea—to disappear, perhaps, and be lost for ever by herself in the fog—without at least once again peeping at Honor as she slept.

    She stole back accordingly and looked in. Molly Muldoon, crouched up into a shapeless blue heap by the bed, was already nodding drowsily, a few inches of puckered forehead, the top of a religiously white cap, the only portions of her distinguishable. Whether Honor slept or not it was impossible to say. Her eyelids were down, and the wbite face below them might have been a dead woman’s face. There was a slight heaving under the sheet, that was all.

    Grania stood there and gazed. Her eyes seemed rooted to that narrow square of brown wall and. that white face in the dimmest corner of it. Both belonged to her as nothing else in this whole wide world belonged or ever could belong. She must not delay, however, she knew. Time was slipping on; what little light was left was rapidly going. She stole out noiselessly, and the cabin door shut remorselessly behind her. Reaching the big boulder, she again picked up the oars which she had left there, laid them across her shoulders, and turned hurriedly down the track.

    It was easy enough to find the way as long as she was in the gully, for there was no turning there to the right or to the left. Beyond it, however, everything—track, rocks, and fog-filled air—looked exactly alike. The oars too prevented her feeling her way as before with her hands, and it was not for a long time and until after many stumbles that she at last reached the small semicircular sweep of sand upon which the curragh was kept’

    Just as she did so something bounced suddenly against her foot, making her start violently and spring backwards. She had once or twice heard an odd pattering noise behind her on her way downhill, but everything seemed odd and unaccountable that evening, so that she had given no particular heed to it. Now she looked down panic-stricken, a prey to terror, all the fears awakened by Biddy O’Shaughnessy’s proceedings astir again, and leaping within her. It was not until she had dropped one of the oars; and that a violent mew of pain had come up from the ground at her feet, that she discovered that the object was nothing more terrifying than their own yellow cat. What had induced the creature, which never by any chance left the cabin, which had never followed her in its life, or shown her the smallest sign of affection, which was notoriously a mere mass of greed and self-indulgence, to select that particular evening for following her all this way, coming down to the shore, which, like most of its race, it detested, is not easy to explain. Grania, at all events, made no attempt to explain it. She stooped hastily to pick up the oar, and as she did so stroked the creature’s back, a vague feeling of comfort coming to her from its presence. Her solitude did not seem to be quite so solitary now that something belonging to them was with her, even if it was only their own ill-tempered yellow cat. There was no response to her caress beyond that the cat did not, as usual, show any inclination to scratch in return, merely sidled noiselessly past her, and then ran a few paces ahead, its brilliant tail lifted high in air as if to show the way.

    As the event proved, Grania was destined to have another, if not a much more efficient, auxiliary. When she had found the curragh, a matter which, small as the space was, took her some time, she began at once to push it towards the sea. A ridge of sand or upsticking point of rock just in front caught it and delayed her, and she went forward to try and clear it away. She was bending down upon her hands and knees, trying to find out its exact position and size, when as she raised her face she suddenly found herself confronted with another face nearly upon the same level as her own—a ghostly face, with great, widely-staring eyes—gazing straight at her through a foot or two of fog.

    Again her fears sprang up, and again they were allayed, this time as the familiar small features and big pale blue eyes of little Phelim Daly gradually became defined, the boy sidling silently up to her as if for protection, and then, like the cat, trotting silently on a step or two in advance, and turning round as though to watch whether she were following.

    She asked him what had happened? Where he had been all day? Why, when Murdough wouldn’t come, he hadn’t tried to find Teige? What his father had done to him? Whether he had beaten him; and how in the end he had managed to escape and to find her out? He made no answer, however, to any of these questions, beyond turning and again fixing his strange blue eyes upon her with a wistful, far-away look; a look full of doubt; one which seemed to ask her in his turn what was the matter; what they were both doing down there upon such a night; why they were out at all; what it all meant? It was an even less responsible, and more far-away look than his usually were, and seemed to suggest that something had happened in the course of the day yet further to disturb and unsettle his always more or less distraught wits.

    There was no time to press the matter, and she turned, therefore, to renew her efforts to get the boat to sea, going behind it and pushing as hard as she could. Suddenly the impediment, whatever it was, gave way; the curragh slid rapidly forward; its black bow splashed into the invisible water. Another push from behind, and it was afloat.

    While she was still pushing it, before it was yet wholly afloat, and before she had even made up her mind whether she was going to take Phelim with her or not, the yellow cat had run on ahead, and had sprung into the boat with an air of decision. This seemed to settle the matter, and they all got in together; an odd boatload, surely! At the very last moment one of the crew, however, changed its mind. Perhaps it was Phelim’s presence, for whom it had always shown a particular aversion; perhaps it was the rocking of the boat as Grania pushed her oar against the sand. Anyhow, with a sudden demoniac mew of fury, the yellow cat sprang up again; darted frantically, like a thing possessed, from side to side, up and down the thwarts, one after the other; then up the stern, availing itself of Phelim, who sat there, as a bridge, and, scratching his bare legs viciously as it did so, sprang to the shore again and raced frantically away up the spit of sand, its yellow tail flaring for a second like a small meteor before it vanished into the darkness.

    Phelim uttered a cry of dismay, and sprang up as if he also were about to escape. Grania, however, called to him to stay still; then, as the only use she could put him to, desired him to go to the other end of the boat and look out carefully, and if he saw anything ahead of them, no matter what, except water and fog, to call to her at once. Apparently he understood, for he nodded twice, going over and squatting down in his usual frog-like fashion at the bow, holding on there to the two sides, as he peered into the foot or so of air and water, which was all that was visible ahead of them. She meanwhile had settled steadily down to the task of rowing. It was exactly like trying to row blindfold, but she knew so well every inch of the way, every rock, shoal, and sandbank,i and had so often gone along it in the dark, as well as the light, that it seemed hardly possible to her that she could go far wrong.

    The first notice from her watcher at the bow came, however, before they had even got clear of their own island. She thought she was upon the usual track, quite away from the dangerous rocks of Portacurra, the furthermost point to westward—that she was even allowing more space than was usual or necessary—when all at once a cry from Phelim startled her, and she stopped rowing.

    looking behind she at first saw nothing but the black beak-like bow of the boat, and the boy’s figure huddled beside it, everything else being a mere blur, but as far as she could make out clear. She thought that he had simply made a mistake, but with another long-drawn cry he turned and pointed downwards towards the water. Leaning forward and looking closer, she then saw, to her surprise, that it was quite true. Greenish points were rising dimly in every direction, some of them within an inch or two of the surface, and beyond these again were other and larger masses, formless as the very fog itself, but which could be nothing but rocks, the barnacle-coated knife-edged rocks of Portacurra, a touch from one of which would tear a hole in the curragh's canvas sides and sink it like a stone.

    Backing cautiously, she managed to escape without any contact. Only just in time, however; another stroke of the oars, two seconds’ more delay, and Phelim’s warning would have come too late. They were now out in Gregory’s Sound, and the only serious danger therefore was of missing the great island altogether, and rowing straight away into the Atlantic.

    After so bad a start Grania had lost confidence in her own powers of finding the way. There was nothing to be done, however, but to row steadily on, and, above all, to avoid turning the boat round. She shut her eyes accordingly, as the safest way of avoiding this, and rowed her hardest, every muscle in her body bound and strung to the task. if she missed the right way past Illaunalee, over the bar and so into Killeany Bay, she was resolved to run ashore anywhere, no matter where, and, leaving the curragh to its fate, push on with Phelim to Father Tom’s house, and trust to getting the loan of another curragh to bring them back to Inishrnaan.

    Half an hour passed thus, and then an hour. Overhead, the white curtain was thicker than ever; yet it seemed to her that it was a little lighter now than it had been when they were starting, showing that it was less the time of day than the sheer density of the fog that had made it so impossible to see upon their own island. On and on she rowed; still on and on, always on and on. Already it appeared to her that she had been rowing quite long enough to have crossed Gregory’s Sound, here little more than a mile wide, and she hoped, therefore, that she had got upon the right track, and would soon be passing the straggling line of sandbanks which surround Illaunalee. Odd-looking vortexes and currents were visible now in the dimness overhead; mysterious maelstroms, gazing up, instead of down, into which, the careering fragments might be seen circling round and round; breaking capriciously off, joining together again, gathering into interlaced patterns, sweeping up and down, expanding, converging; all this movement going on along the edge of a sort of pit, scooped as it were out of the very air itself. Suddenly, while she was looking at it, the whole thing would close up, and a new vortex or funnel break out in an altogether different place.

    Grania was beginning to get drowsy over her task, what with the weight of the air and with the pressure of her own troubled thoughts. Her drowsiness did not perceptibly slacken the activity of her muscles, but she rowed more and more mechanically, the rhythm of her own movements seeming to produce a dream-like effect upon her brain. Thoughts, or rather dreams, of Honor visited her from time to time, thoughts, too, or dreams, of Murdough, both equally broken, confused, fragmentary. As far as her own sensations went, she might have been rowing there the whole live-long night, so benumbing and sleep-like was that torpor. How long she really had been rowing she could not in the least have told, but her thoughts or her dreams were suddenly cut short—cut into as it were—by another wild cry from Phelim. This time it was much more than a cry, it was an actual scream; a shrill, discordant screech, such as some animals give when they are in the intensest throes of terror. Grania on her side started violently, and turned round. The boy, she found, had leaped up from his seat, and was standing at his full height waving his thin arms frantically in the air, calling to her, and pointing directly above his head, with gesticulations violent enough to all but swamp the frail craft they were in. Another moment and it seemed as if he would leap clean overboard from sheer panic. Looking up she, too, saw what he had seen, and was almost equally startled. Apparently immediately above them, in reality a little way ahead, one of those, same aërial funnels had just opened, and within the comparatively clear space of its air-filled hollow could be seen, not merely the careering particles of fog circling round and round, but something else, something that did not circle or move at all, a few inches of wind tattered grass, a few inches more of bare splintered rock. There they hung, apparently in mid-air, their beginnings and endings alike invisible, but this much clearly discernible, a startling vision in itself, and a plain proof, moreover, that they were not approaching Illaunalee, or anywhere even remotely near it.

    Where were they? Grania asked herself in dismay. Were they moving along the base of the south side of Aranmore, where the cliffs rise constantly higher till they are crowned at last by Dun Aengus, or had she passed the mouth of Killeany Bay altogether, and were they edging therefore along the lower and more broken cliffs upon the north side of the island? She did not know; she could not even remotely guess!

    In any case the only thing to be done was to get away once more into open water, and with a rapid movement of the oars she accordingly backed the curragh, forgetting for the moment little Phelim, who, staggering helplessly, fell violently forward, only just saving himself by clutching with both hands at the side of the boat, where he hung for a while, head downwards, doubled in two, his shoulders and the front part of his body all but touching the water.

    It seemed to be the last straw needed to overset his already shattered nerves and panic-stricken wits! From that moment he evidently gave himself up for lost. Gathering himself back by degrees to his former place he began to whimper and cry aloud, rubbing his hands up and down his poor starved legs, moaning over their bruises and talking rapidly and incoherently, now to himself, now to the sea, or to the planks in front of him. Once in the middle of these moanings and mutterings he suddenly looked up and uttered another prolonged screech of terror, whereupon Grania stopped abruptly in her rowing and looked round. This time, however, he had screamed at nothing. He was incapable, in fact, of serving any longer as watcher. Reality and unreality had become one to him. Like some utterly fear-maddened animal he continued to moan and whimper helplessly, gazing out into the fog-filled space in front of him, but not seeing anything, even if there happened to be anything there to see; his big, prominent blue eyes staring blankly, and as blind eyes stare, over the edge of the curragh as it floated on and on, under the invisible but always near presence of the great cliffs; on and on; yes, but where to? to what goal? towards what sort of a landing-place? Neither of them knew ; she very little more than he.