Part I

September

Chapter VII

THE DALY brood departed with their booty, Honor next bustled about to get their own meal ready. Grania meanwhile had promptly dumped herself down upon her two small heels and sat doing nothing, except staring sulkily at the fire. The child was thoroughly cross. She wanted her playfellow, and poor Honor by no means filled the blank. An old hen, sitting upon a clutch of eggs in a hole in the wall a little to the left of the fire, put its head out, and uttered a friendly interrogative chuck, by way of suggestion that it was there and would not object to a handful of oatmeal if it came in its way. Grania, however, took no notice, but sat, with her small brows drawn close together, staring at the ash-covered heap of turf, below which a dull red glow still smouldered.

    Inside the cabin everything was warm, turf-scented, chocolate-tinted. Walls, roof, hearth, furniture—what furniture there was—all was dim and worn, blackened with time, smoke, and much friction. Little light came in at the small, closely-puttied windows; much smoke down the wide, imperfectly-fashioned chimney. It suited its inmates, however, and that, after all, is the main thing. To them, as to the old speckled hen, it was home—the one spot on earth that was theirs, which made the difference between warmth, self-respect, comfort, and a desolate, windy world without. Solid at least it was. There was no scamped work about it: no lath and plaster in the walls ; no dust and rubble in the foundations. Had there been it would not have stood out against the first of the ten thousand storms that had beat against its solid little walls since the first day that they were planted in the mouth of that wicked, squally gully.

    Supper over, Grania watched her opportunity. With a sudden slide, a run, a quick scramble, and a dart through the open door, she managed, while Honor was scouring out the black pot, to escape and run off at the top of her speed to a spot where she knew she would be safe, for some time at least, from pursuit.

    This retreat of hers was a stone fort known as the Mothar dun, one of seven or eight so-called Cyclopean forts which stud the islands. This one, which was only a few hundred yards from their own door, was small, as Cyclopean forts go—not towering in air like a great natural cliff, as Dun Aengus does, nor yet covering the whole top of the island, hike Dun Connor or Conchobhair, but forming a comparatively modest circle, set halfway up the slope—an absurd position, if you reflect on it from a military point of view, since it must have been dominated by any enemy who happened to stand above it. Nobody on Inishmaan troubled themselves, however, about such matters, and little Grania O'Malley naturally least of all.

    Clambering over the big blocks, excited with the sense of escape, and breathless from her run up the perpendicular, ladderlike face of the slope, she had just reached the innermost enclosure when, out of the darkest part of it, a figure bounced against her so roughly as to cause her to spring backwards, striking her foot, as she did so, against one of the sharp-pointed stones.

    It was a big, red-headed lad of fourteen or, perhaps, fifteen years old, extremely, almost painfully, ugly, possessing one of those faces which confront one now and then in the west of Ireland, and which seem to verge to a cruel degree upon the grotesque. So freckled was he that his face seemed all freckle; an utterly shapeless, and at the same time ridiculously inconspicuous, nose; a shock head, tangled enough to suggest the historic 'glibbe' of his remote progenitors; with all that, a harmless, amiable, not even particularly stupid face, but so dull, and at the same time apprehensive-looking, that its very amiability seemed to provoke and invite attack. Attack was certainly not spared on this occasion.

    'Auch, and is it you then, Teige O'Shaughnessy! And why must you be sticking there in the dark, knocking me down for nothing at all—yes, indeed, for nothing at all?' the child exclaimed as soon as she had recovered her breath. 'Augh, but it is yourself, Teige O'Shaughnessy, that is the ugly, awkward boy! the ugliest and awkwardest in all Inishmaan! My word, just wait till Murdough Blake comes back from the sea, till I tell him how you run out at me in the dark and I doing nothing! It is Murdough Blake will give you the real good beating so he will!—yes, indeed, the best good beating ever you got in your life, just to learn you manners! That he will, and more too, you ugly, clumsy omadhaun!'

    She stopped, breathless, exhausted by her own volubility.

    The boy so belaboured with words only stood still, his poor ugly face growing redder and uglier in his confusion.

    'Arrah, is it hurt you are, Grania O'Malley?' he stammered sheepishly at last.

    'And if it is hurt I am or not hurt, it is not to you I will be telling it, Teige O'Shaughnessy,' she replied haughtily. 'And I will be glad for you to go away, so I will, for I do not want to be hooking at your ugly face, nor at your red hair, nor at any piece of you, so I do not!' And she flung herself face downwards upon the nearest stone.

    Poor Teige found apparently no effective rejoinder to these observations, for, after staring stupidly at her for about a minute, he turned and proceeded obediently to depart, his heavy feet—heavy even in their soft cow's skin pampooties—lumbering along over the rocks, the sound growing fainter and fainter as he disappeared down the stony hillside.

    Little Grania waited where she was till he was out of sight, then she jumped up from the stone upon which she had thrown herself and clambered nimbly up, till she had reached her favourite perch on the top of the fort, where a small portion of the parapet still existed. Seating herself upon this she let her feet dangle out over the smooth flagged platform which stretched for some distance beyond.

    She was still sobbing from anger, however, rather than pain, her suffering being of the kind known in nursery parlance as a pain in the temper, the previous vexation about Murdough having been deepened and brought into fresh prominence by the recent encounter.

    Teige O'Shaughnessy was an orphan, and lived with an uncle and aunt, an old brother and sister who inhabited a cabin upon one of the outlying rocks, one which became an island at high tide and therefore was then unapproachable. The two were twins, and earned their bread, or rather the old man earned it for both of them, by weaving. Apparently it was a sorry trade, for the cabin in which they lived was so twisted, sea-battered, brine-encrusted, and generally miserable that, by comparison, most of the other houses upon the island might have been regarded by their owners as quite architectural and dignified domiciles. This, one would say, ought to have been a source of popularity, but, for several reasons, the O'Shaughnessys were rather pariahs upon Inishmaan. This was not on account of their poverty, which is never a really damning reproach in Ireland, and probably, therefore, was due partly to the fact that, compared to most of its inhabitants, they were new-comers—at least, there were several very old people on Inishmaan who pretended to remember a time when there were no O'Shaughnessys there—partly to their extreme ill-favouredness, and, still more, to the fact that the two old people were deaf and dumb, and could therefore only communicate with their neighbours and the rest of the world by signs—a sufficient reason surely in a much less superstitious community than that of Inishmaan for regarding them as lying peculiarly under the disfavour of Heaven, and likely enough to bring that contagion or blight of disfavour upon other, and more fortunate, people if unduly encouraged and associated with.

    Grania, a born aristocrat—all children are born aristocrats—shared this feeling in the strongest degree, and was well aware that Teige was in some way or other immensely inferior to herself, and therefore a person only to be tolerated when no more attractive company was to be had. She sat for some time longer with her feet dangling over the top of the fort, a quaint little red-petticoated figure, the solitary spot of colour in all that desolate greyness. Immediately beneath her the ridged platforms of rock showed their upturned edges, one below the other, fluted, worn, and grooved into every variety of furrow. Hardly a speck of green to be seen anywhere. Here and there an adventurous spray of honeysuckle or bryony, grown deep in the hollows, showed perhaps a few inches of foliage above the wrinkled surface of the rocks, but that was all.

    The winds were all hushed for that evening, but their power and prowess was written at large upon every worn crag, torn fissure, and twisted stump; upon the whole battered, wind-tormented scene. Inishmaan might from this point have suggested some weather-beaten old vessel, a raft or hulk given over to the mercy of winds and waves, keeping afloat still, but utterly scarred and defaced, a derelict, past all possibility of recovery.

    After sitting for about a quarter of an hour upon the same spot, the child began to tire of her solitary perch. A new impulse seized her, and, leaving the rath, she clambered down the wall, over the loose blocks scattered outside—remains of a still discernible chevaux de frise—ran across the level slabs of rock, till she reached the end of the one she was upon, when she dropped suddenly down-hill, over, as it were, a single gigantic stair, thereby attaining the one below.

    This brought her to a totally different aspect of the island, and, comparatively speaking, a cheerful and. sheltered one. A narrow coose, or horseshoe-shaped bay, running some little, way inshore, had created a sort of small sea-facing amphitheatre, backed by a semicircle of rocks, at the bottom and sides of which mountain ash, holly, and fuchsia—the latter still red with flower—grew and flourished, enclosing and sheltering a small, perfectly level green stage or platform.

    At the end of this platform, which served it for a terrace, stood a house—not a cabin, and the only habitable abode on Inishmaan that could be called by any other name. It was said to have been built for a relation of the owner of the islands, who, fifty years before, had found here an asylum from his creditors. Whatever its history may have been, it formed undoubtedly an odd contrast to every other form of architecture to be found in the place. In shape it seemed to have been intended to imitate some small Greek or Roman temple, the front consisting of four cut granite pillars supporting a roof, and led up to by three wide, shallow steps, which steps were also of granite, the reddish feldspathic granite of West Galway. The back and sides of the building, however, were only of the ordinary blue limestone of the island, once plastered with stucco, and white, but long since blistered and broken away. Damp and decay had, in fact, got possession of the whole building. Not only had the stucco almost entirely fallen off, but even the scrolled iron banisters of a flight of steps which led from the end of the terrace to the sea were in many places worn to a mere thread by the constant friction of water and rust-producing action of the spray.

    No one lived there now, though an old woman, the grandmother of Murdough Blake, was paid a trifle for looking after it, and was pretty generally to be found there in the daytime. With Grania it had always been a chief haunt and playground, partly because Murdough Blake had a prescriptive right to go there to dig bait and loaf about generally, but also because there was a fascination for her in the tumble-down old house itself, so utterly unlike any other within the range of her experience.

    As might have been expected, it was all shut up now; so, having vainly tried each of the doors and windows, and rapped impatiently at two or three of them, she went down the steps and squatted disconsolately upon a bit of rock at the foot of them.

    The air, mild as milk, had something about it that evening which seemed to touch the cheek like a caress. There had been no sunset worth speaking of, but the western sky and sea above and below the rim of the horizon were tinged with faint salmon, through which the grey broke, and into which it was gradually melting. To the north, behind the child's head, the great grey profile of Dun Conchobhair lifted its frowning mass, well defined against the sky—a dark, sinister fragment of a long-forgotten past, looking gloomily down upon the poor, squat, and weather-worn habitations of today.

    The sea seemed to have grown curiously small. The 'Old Sea,' as the islanders call the Atlantic, was here hidden completely out of sight, and only the sound between the middle and smallest island, with a fragment of the bay beyond, was visible. To the left lay the remains of a small pier, where the owner of the villa had once moored his boats, now broken down and half destroyed by storms. Seagulls floated hither and thither in the still water, tame as ducks upon a farmyard pool. Cormorants passed overhead with black outstretched necks, and now and then the white-barred head of a diver rose for a moment, to disappear again into the depths of the water the next.

    As it grew darker, the shapes of everything began to change, blend, and melt into one another. The crooked iron supports, bent and red with rust, took on new and more fantastic forms. They seemed now a company of spindle-legged imps, writhing, twisting, tugging to right and left, so as to escape from the weight of what they had undertaken to carry. Red flakes, fallen from them, lay in all directions upon the ground, mixed with fragments of black oarweed, like so many twists of old worn-out tobacco. Everything breathed a dull calm, a half-stupefied melancholy. The swell slid lazily up one side of the little pier, hiding its stones and rat-holes for a moment, then fell heavily back again down the other, with a movement that was almost suggestive of a shrug, a gesture, of somewhat bored resignation.

    For nearly an hour the child sat on and on, heedless of poor Honor's anxieties, dreaming dim, formless dreams, such as visit alike all young heads, whatever the measure of so-called education that may have fallen to the lot of their owners.

    She thought over the incidents in the boat that afternoon, and clenched her two little rows of white teeth afresh at the recollection of Shan Daly's attack on Murdough. Then she took to wondering where Murdough was, and whether he was on his way back, a vague dream of floating away some- where or other in a boat, only he and she together, rising blissfully before her mind. A momentary qualm as to Honor came to cross these delights, quickly dispersed, however, by the reflection that Honor had her prayers and her cross, and that she really wanted nothing else, whereas she, Grania, wanted many things, while as for Murdough Blake, that hero's wants were simply insatiable—grew and multiplied, in fact, with such rapidity that even his most faithful admirer could hardly keep pace with them.

    By-and-by, as she sat there, the tide began to creep higher up, and nearer and nearer to her feet. There was a smell of salt and slimy things, which seemed to be mounting upon the rising water. A rat scuffled and squeaked not far off, and bats flew darkly to and fro overhead. Grania began to think of going home. She was not afraid of rats, bats, sea-water, or anything else. She was used to being alone at all hours, and, as for the sea, it was almost her element. Still, as one had to go back and to bed some time or other, it seemed almost as well to go now.

    On her way home she had to pass close to the half-peninsula, half-island upon which the O'Shaughnessys' cabin stood, barely visible at this distance under its load of black thatch, and looking rather like the last year's nest of some shore-infesting crow or chough. The tide was still low enough to get to it, and the fancy took the child to go across and peep in at the window, which, like every other window upon Inishmaan, was sure to be unshuttered. Teige, no doubt, would be at home at this hour, and she would be able, perhaps, to give him a fright, in return for the fright he had given her an hour before.

    The seaweeds were more than usually slimy upon the rocks covering the space which separated this small outlying fragment of Inishmaan from the rest of the island, and even in her pampooties little Grania found some difficulty in getting across, and stumbled more than once before she reached the rocks on the other side. No one came to the door, or seemed to hear her footsteps, and, as the door itself was shut, there was clearly nothing to be done but to go up to the cabin and apply her small nose to the one narrow, closely-puttied square of glass which in the daytime gave light to the dwelling.

    Any illumination there was was now from within, not from without, for a bright turf-fire was blazing redly upon the hearth. At first sight the most prominent object visible was the loom, which practically filled up the whole interior of the cabin. Beyond it the child could presently distinguish two figures, a white figure and a red figure, both of them extraordinarily ugly—a frightful little old man, a hideous little old woman—both of them, too, though utterly, strangely silent, were nevertheless, as she saw to her dismay, gesticulating violently at one another. Now it was the old man who, squatting down towards the ground, would spread out his arms widely, then springing suddenly erect wave them over his head, apparently imitating some one engaged in rowing, fishing, or what not, the whole performance being carried on with the most breathless vehemence and energy. Then the old woman would take her turn, and go, through a somewhat similar evolution, expressive seemingly of weaving, spinning, walking, eating, or whatever she wanted to express, while, whichever was the principal performer, the other would respond with quick comprehensive jerks of the head, sudden enough and sharp enough apparently to crack the spinal column.

    It was less like a pair of human beings communicating together than like a pair of extraordinary automata, some sort of ugly, complicated toy set into violent action by its proprietor and unable to leave off until its mechanism had run down. To the child, standing outside in the dark, the whole thing, lit as it was by the fitful illumination of the fire, and doubled by a sort of second performance on the part of a still more grotesque pair of shadows painted on the ceiling overhead, had something in it quite extraordinarily terrifying, quite indescribably mysterious and horrible She knew, of course, perfectly well that it was only dumb Denny and dumb Biddy O'Shaughnessy; that they always gesticulated like that to one another—not having any other way, poor souls, of communicating. She knew this perfectly well, but as she stood there, a little, quailing, slinking figure, peering in through the unshuttered window, she became a prey to all the indescribable terrors, all the dumb, inexplicable, but at the same time agonising, horrors of childhood. She longed as she had never longed before in her life to get her head under some blanket, under somebody's skirt, anywhere, with anyone, no matter where, so only she had somewhere to hide, some hand to cling to. Her heart beat, her knees knocked together, her teeth chattered, and with that sudden sense of the necessity of finding some refuge stinging her through and through like a nettle, she turned and fled—as a scared rabbit flies—down the rocky way, across the slippery tide rocks, over the slimy, evil- smelling oarweeds, which seemed to be twining deliberately round her feet and trying to stop her, up hill and down hill till she once more found herself inside their own cabin, and within the sheltering arms of the faithful Honor, who had been watching for her for an hour past from the threshold.

    As for Con O'Malley, the hospitality of Kilronan proved, on this occasion as often before, too much for him, and he had to stay and sleep off the effects of it under the friendly, sheltering roof of the 'Cruskeen Beg.'