Part I

September

Chapter II

HARDLY, had the smaller boat pushed away from the larger one and regained its former place, before the little girl upon the ballast scrambled hastily down from her perch, mounted the deck, and went up to the boy as he stood there astonished, furious, red to the roots of his hair with anger and indignant surprise.

    She had been watching the struggle between him and Shan Daly with breathless interest. She hated Shan with all the hate of her fierce little heart. She loved Murdough. He was their nearest neighbour, her playfellow, her big brother—not that they were of any kin to one another—her hero, after a fashion. She adored him as a small schoolboy adores a bigger one, and, like that small schoolboy, laid herself open to be daily and hourly snubbed by the object of her adoration.

    'Is it hurt you are, Murdough ? Murdough dheelish, is it hurt you are? Speak, Murdougheen, speak to me! Did the beast stick you? Speak, I say!' she asked in quick, eager Irish, pouring out a profusion of those tender diminutives for which our duller English affords such a meagre and a poverty-stricken equivalent.

    But the boy was too angry, too profoundly insulted by the whole foregoing scene, especially the end of it, to make any response. He pushed her from him instead with a quick, angry gesture, and continued to stare at the sea and the other boat with an air of immeasurable offence.

    The little girl did not seem to mind. She kept pressing herself closely against him for a minute or two longer, with all the loving, not-to-be-repulsed, pertinacity of an affectionate kitten. Then, finding that he took no notice of these attentions, she left him, and trotted back to her former perch, clambering over the big stones with an agility born of practice, and having dived into a recess hidden away between a couple of loose boards, presently found what she was in search of, and, scrambling back, came close up to him and thrust the object silently into his hands.

    It was only a bit of bread, perfectly, stale, dry bread, but then it was baker's bread, not griddle, and as such accounted a high delicacy upon Inishmaan, only to be procured when a boat went to the mainland, and even then only by the more wealthy of its citizens, such as Con O'Malley, who had a fancy for such exotic dainties, and found an eternal diet of potatoes and oatmeal porridge, even if varied by a bit of cabbage and stringy bacon upon Sundays and saints' days, apt at times to pall.

    It seemed as if even this treasured offering would not at first propitiate the angry boy. He even went so far as to make a gesture with his hand as if upon the point of flinging it away from him into the sea. Some internal monitor probably made him refrain from this last act of desperation, for it was getting late, and a long time since he had eaten anything. He stood still, however, a picture of sullen irresolution: his good-looking, blunt-featured, thoroughly Irish face lowering, his underlip thrust forward, his hands, one of them with the piece of bread in it, hanging by his side. A sharper voice than Grania's came, however, to arouse him.

    'Monnum oan d'youl! Monnum oan d'youl!' [My soul from the devil.'] Con O'Malley shouted angrily from the curragh. 'Go to her helm this minute, ma bouchaleen, or it will be the worse for you! Is it on to the Inishscattery rocks you'd have us be driving?'

    Murdough Blake started; then, with another angry pout, crossed the deck of the hooker, and went to take up his place beside the helm, upon the same spot on which Con O'Malley himself had stood a few minutes before. The big boat was almost immovable; still, the Atlantic is never exactly a toy to play with, and it was necessary for some hand to be upon the helm in case of a sudden capricious change of wind, or unlooked-for squall arising. Little Grania did not go back to her former place upon the ballast, but, trotting after him, scrambled nimbly on to the narrow, almost knife-like edge of the hooker, twisting her small pampootie-clad feet round a rope, so as to get a better purchase and be able to balance herself.

    The afternoon was closing in quickly now. Clouds had gathered thickly to northward. The naked stone-strewn country between Spiddal and Cashla, the wild, almost unvisited; wholly roadless region beyond Greatman's Bay, were all host to sight in dull, purplish-brown shadows. Around the boat the water, however, was still grey and luminous, and the sky above it clear, but the distance was filled with racing, hurrying streaks of darker water; while' from time to time sudden flurries of wind broke up the hitherto perfect reflections.

    Usually, when these two companions were alone together, an incessant chattering went on, or, to be accurate, an incessant monologue; for Murdough Blake already possessed one of the more distinctive gifts of his countrymen, and his tongue had a power of building up castles in the air—castles in which he himself; of course, was chief actor, owner, lord, general person of importance—castles which would sometimes mount up, tier above tier, higher and higher, tottering dizzily before the dazzled eyes of his small companion till even her admiration, her capacity for, belief, failed to follow them longer.

    Neither of them knew a single word of English, for the schoolmaster had not in those days even casually visited Inishmaan, which is still, at the moment I write, the most retrograde spot, probably, within the four seas. The loss was none to them, however, for they were unaware of it. No one about them spoke English, and had they spoken it, nay, used it habitually, it would have been less an aid probably than a hindrance to these architectural glories. To-day, however, Murdough was in no mood to exhibit any of his usual rhetorical feats. He was thoroughly out of temper. His vanity had been badly mauled, not so much by Shan Daly's attack upon him—for, like everyone in and around Iinishmaan, he despised Shan Daly—as by the fashion in which Con O'Malley had cut short his own explanations. This had touched it to the quick: and Murdough Blake's vanity was already a serious possession, not one to be wounded with impunity. Con being out of reach, and too high in any case for reprisals, he paid back his wrongs, as most of us do, in snubs upon the person nearest at hand. The tête-à-tête, therefore, was a silent one. From time to time the hooker would give a friendly, encouraging croak, as if to suggest a topic, sloping now a little to the right, now to the left, as the soft air began to be invaded by fresher currents coming in from the Atlantic—wild nurse, mother, and grandmother of storms, calm enough just then, but with the potentiality of, heaven only knows how many, unborn tempests for ever and for ever brooding within her restless old breast.

    Occasionally Murdough, would take a bite out of the slice of white bread, but carelessly, and with a nonchalant air, as much as to say that he would just as soon have been doing anything else. Whenever he did this, little Grania would watch him from the ledge upon which she had perched herself, her big dark eyes glistening with satisfaction as the mouthful disappeared down his throat. Now and then too she would turn for a moment towards the curragh, and as she did so and as her eye caught sight of Shan Daly's slouching figure a gleam of intense rage would sweep across the little brown face, the soft upper lip wrinkling and curling expressively as one may see a small dog's lips curl when it longs to bite. Ill would it have fared with Shan-à-veehonee or Shan-à-gaddy ('Shan the thief ')—which was another of his local names—had her power to punish him been equal to her wish to do so. Her hates and her loves ranged at present over a ridiculously narrow compass, but they were not at all ridiculous in their intensity. It was a small vessel, but there was an astonishing amount of latent heat, of latent possibilities, alike for good and ill, in it.