Part I

September

Chapter VI

BLOCKING the mouth of the already narrow gully stood a big boulder of pink granite, a 'Stranger' from the opposite coast of Galway. Leaning against this boulder as the sisters mounted the pathway, a group of five figures came into sight. Only one of these was full grown, the rest were children—babies, rather—of various ages from five years old to a few weeks or less. Seen in the twilight made by the big rock you might have taken the whole group for some sort of earth or rock emanation, rather than for things of living flesh and blood, so grey were they, so wan, so much the same colour, so much apparently the same texture as what they leaned against.

    Honor started forward at a run as soon as she caught sight of them, her pale face lit with a warm ray of kindliness and hospitality.

    'Auch, and is it there you are; Kitty Daly?' she exclaimed. 'But it is the bad place you have taken to sit in, so it is, and all your poor young children too! And it is you that look bad, too, this day, God love us!—yes indeed, but bad! And is it long that you have been sitting there? My God, I would have left the door open if I had thought you would come and I not in it! Yet it is not a cold day either, praise be to God!—no it is a very fine, warm day. There has not been a finer day this season, if so be it will last till his reverence comes next week for the pathern. But what brings you up this afternoon at all, at all? It is too soon for you to be coming up the hill!, and you so weak still—too soon altogether!'

    While she was speaking the woman had got up, her whole little brood, save the baby which she held in her arms, rising with her as if by a single impulse. Seen in the strong light which fell upon their faces over the top of the gully they looked even more piteous, more wan and wobegone than when they were squatting in the comparative shadow at the base of the rock. She made no direct reply to Honor's question, but looked up at her with a dumb, wistful appeal, and then down at the children, who in their turn looked up at what, no doubt, was in their eyes the embodiment of prosperity standing before them. There was no mistaking what that appeal meant. The answer was written upon every face in the whole group. Hunger was written there; worse—starvation; first, most clamorous of needs, not often, thank Heaven! seen so clearly, but when seen terrible—a vision from the deepest, most elemental depths, a cry to pity, full of ancient primordial horrors; heart-rending; appalling; impossible not to hasten to satisfy.

    That this was the only possible answer to her question seemed to have immediately struck the kindly-natured Honor. For, without wasting further time, she ran to her own door, taking out a big key as she did so from her pocket. Another minute and she had rummaged out a half-eaten griddle- loaf, and was hacking big morsels off it with a blunt, well-nigh disabled dinner-knife.

    Manners, however, had to be observed, let the need for haste be never so great, and no one was more observant of such delicacies than Honor O'Malley.

    'Then, indeed, it is not very good bread to-day, so it is not,' she observed apologetically. 'It was last Tuesday week I would have wished to ask you to taste of it, Mrs. Daly. The barm did not rise rightly this time, whatever the reason was, still, after your walk you would, maybe, eat a bit of it, and I would be much obliged to you, and the young children, too. But it is some cow's milk that they must have. Run, Grania, run quick and fetch some out of the big mether, it is on the top shelf, out of the way of the cat. It is good cow's milk, Mrs. Daly, though it has been skimmed once; I skim it now in the morning, after Grania has had her breakfast. The child grows so fast it is the best milk she must have, but it is not at all bad milk, only skimmed once, or I would not offer it you, no, indeed, I would not, Mrs. Daly, ma 'am'

    But the poor visitor was past responding to any such friendly efforts to shield her self-respect. She tried to thank her entertainer, but the tears came too fast, and fairly choked her. One after another they gathered and ran down her thin white cheeks, fresh tears continually brimming her poor eyes, once a brilliant blue—not a common colour in the west of Ireland—and which still, though their brightness had waned, seemed all too blue and too brilliant for the poor faded face they shone out of.

    'Och, then! Och, then! Och, then!' Honor O'Malley said in a gentle tone, at once soothing and remonstrating. 'Och, then, Mrs. Daly, will you please give me the baby for a minute, ma'am? for it is not lucky, they say, to cry over such a young child. The sidh—God forgive me for naming such a wicked, heathen word!—the sidh, old people say, do be looking about, and if they see tears drop on a baby it is they will get it for themselves, so they will—God stand between us and all such work this night, amen! Well, Phelim sonny, and what ails you? Is it the milk that is sour? Then it is not very sour it can be, for it was only milked the morning before last. Grania, fetch some sugar and put it in the child's milk. Bless me, Mrs. Daly, but he does grow, that child Phelim! only look at the legs of him!'

    The boy she was addressing was the eldest of the pitiful little group, a wistful-faced, shadowy creature of about five, His eyes were blue, like his mother's, though of a paler shade and more prominent. Big, startled eyes they were—the eyes of a child that sees phantoms in the night, that starts in its sleep and cries out, it knows not why or about what. With those big eyes fixed full upon her face he was staring hard at Grania O'Malley, the pannikin of milk which had been put into his hands remaining untasted in the intensity of his contemplation.

    'Indeed and indeed it is too good you are to them, Honor O'Malley—too good entirely!' poor Mrs. Daly managed to say, finding her voice at last, though still speaking through the sobs which choked her. 'But it is yourself knows where to look for the blessing so it is! And may God shield you and keep you in health and sickness, in joy and sorrow, in this world and in the world to come—yes, indeed, and beyond it too, if need be, amen! It is ashamed I am, sorry and ashamed, to be troubling you, and you not well yourself. But Shan, you see it is very bad times Shan has had lately. There is no work at all to do, he says, not anywhere on Inishmaan, no, nor upon Aranmore even. There was some fish he was to bring in this afternoon, but he has not come back yet, and the evening it is late, and if he did catch the fish itself, it is not young children that can eat fish alone, so it is not. And me so weak still, it is but little I can do; for it is not, you know, till next Friday will be three weeks that—'

    She stopped and looked bashfully down at the poor little bundle in her neighbour's arms. Though this was her fourth child she had a feeling of delicacy about alluding to the fact of its birth which would have seemed not merely inconceivable, but monstrous to a woman of another race and breeding. Honor, however, knew as much, or more, about the matter than she did herself.. She had been with her at the time, although old Mrs. Flanaghan, Phil Flanaghan's mother, was the chief official in command on the occasion. It was Honor, however, who had baptised the baby—this poor little white-faced object then in her arms, whose birth and death had seemed likely to be contemporaneous. It was an office for which she was in great demand on Inishmaan, where, as explained, there was no priest, and where her peculiar piety made her seem to her neighbours specially fitted for such semi-sacerdotal duties. Of course such a baptism was only meant as, a preliminary, to serve till the more regular sacrament could be bestowed, but, from the difficulties of transport, it often happened that weeks and months passed before any other could be given; nay, not infrequently, the poor little pilgrim had found its way to the last haven for all such pilgrims, near to the old church of Cill-Cananach, unguarded from future perils by any more regular rite.

    Looking down at the small waxen face upturned in her lap, Honor O'Malley felt that such a consummation was not in this case far off. She did not say to herself that it was so much the better, for that would have been a sin, but her thoughts certainly ran unconsciously in that direction as, having given it back to its mother, she bustled to and fro in the cabin, putting together all the available scraps of food she could find; which done, she tied them into a bundle and deposited the bundle in the passive arms of little Phelim, who accepted it from her with the same dim, wondering stare of astonishment in his pale china-blue eyes—a stare with which every event, good or ill, seemed alike to be received by him. Five years' experience of a very troublesome world had evidently not yet accustomed him to any of its peculiar ways or vicissitudes.