To turn to a more cheerful subject. Murdough Blake had grown up, as he had promised to do, into a tall, active, lissom young fellow. In his archaic clothes of yellowish flannel, spun, woven, bleached, made upon the island, in the cow's skin pampooties which give every Aranite his peculiarly shuffling and at the same time swinging step, he ought to have rejoiced the inmost heart of a painter, had a painter ever thought of going to the Aran isles in search of subjects, a ridiculous supposition, for who would dream of doing so? He was anything but satisfied, however, with his own clothes, his own standing, his own prospects in life, or, for that matter, with anything else about him, excepting with young Murdough Blake himself, who was clearly too exceptional a person to be wasted upon such a spot as Inishmaan.
A quarter of a century ago no golden political era for promising young Irishmen of his class had yet dawned, and, even if it had done so, the Aran isles are rather remote for recruits to be sought for there, especially recruits who are innocent of any tongue except their own fine, old useless one. There was, consequently, nothing for Murdough to do except to follow in the old track, the same track that his father and grandfather had followed before him—namely, fish a little, farm a little, rear a little cattle for the mainland, marry and bring up a 'long' family like his neighbours, unless he was prepared to make a bold start for the hand of promise on the other side of the Atlantic—a revolutionary measure for which, despite his many dissatisfactions, he lacked, probably, the necessary courage.
Whether he would have cared to do so or no, Grania certainly would not, and they were shortly to be married. To her Inishmaan was much more than home, much more than a place she lived in, it was practically the world, and she wished for no bigger, hardly for any more prosperous, one. It was not merely her own little holding and cabin, but every inch of it that was in this peculiar sense hers. It belonged to her as the rock on which it has been born belongs to the young seamew. She had grown to it, and it had grown to her. She was a part of it, and it was a part of her, and the bare idea of leaving it—of leaving it, that is to say, permanently—would have filled her with nothing short of sheer consternation.
Perhaps to one whose lot happens to be cast upon an island—a mere brown dot set in an angry and turbulent ocean—the act of leaving it seems a far more startling piece of transplantation than any flitting can seem to one who merely shares a mainland dotted over with tens of thousands of homesteads more or less similar to one's own. To sail away, see it dimly receding behind you, becoming first a mere speck, then vanishing altogether, must be a very serious proceeding, one which, since it is not within our power to exchange habitations with a native, say, of Saturn or of Mars, it us not very easy to imagine exceeded in gravity.
If all humans are themselves islands, as the poet has suggested, then this tall, red-petticoated, fiercely-handsome girl was decidedly a very isolated, and rather craggy and unapproachable, sort of island. In her neighbours' eyes she was a 'Foreigner,' just as her mother had been a foreigner before her, and there was much shaking of heads and lifting of hands amongst the matrons of Inishmaan whenever her name was mentioned. Even to her own sister who adored her, who had adored her from the cradle, she was a source of much disquietude, much sisterly anxiety, less as regards this life—which, from the good Honor's standpoint, was an affair of really no particular moment one way or other—than as regards the future, the only future worthy in her eyes of the name.
Probably she was right enough. Such a frame as Grania's is a good, ready-made home for most of the simpler, more straightforward virtues. Honesty, strength, courage, love of the direct human kind, pity for the weak—especially the weak that belong to you, that are your own kith and kin, and dependent upon you—these were born in her, came to her direct from the hands of Nature. For other, the more recondite, saintlier virtues—faith, meekness, holiness, patience, and the rest—she certainly showed no affinity. They were not to be looked for—hardly by a conceivable process to be acquired or engrafted.
This, rather than her own broken health, her own fast-approaching death, was the real sting and sorrow of Honor's life, the sorrow that, day after day, impaled her upon its thorns, and woke her up pitilessly a dozen times in the night to impale her afresh. Like some never-to-be-forgotten wound it would be upon her almost before she was well awake. Herself saved, and Grania, perhaps—not! It was a nightmare, a permanent terror, a horror of great darkness, worse a hundred times to her than if the anticipation had been reversed.
That in some mysterious way, she could not have explained how, her sister, rather than herself, might benefit by her own present sufferings, was the only counter-hope that ever for a moment buoyed her up. She had ventured, after long hesitation, to consult Father Tom of Aranmore upon this subject the last time she had been able to go to confession, and if he had not encouraged, he had not absolutely discouraged, her from treasuring the notion. She did treasure it accordingly. Every new pang, every hour of interminable, long-drawn weakness being literally offered up upon a sort of invisible altar, with much trembling, much self-rebuke at the worthlessness of the offering, and yet with a deep-seated belief that it might somehow or other be accepted, little promising as, it must be owned, matters looked at present. Poor Honor! poor faithful sisterly soul! We smile at you, perhaps, yet surely we envy you, too, and our envy cuts short and half shames us out of our smiles.
As for Murdough Blake, his views about Grania were of the simplest possible description. She was immensely strong he knew, the strongest girl on Inishmaan, as well as the best off, and, for both reasons evidently, the most suitable one as a wife for himself. If she was 'Foreigner,' out of touch and tone with her neighbours, no such accusation could certainly be laid at his door. A more typical young man it would be difficult to find—typical enough to excuse some abuse of the term—typical in his aspirations, typical in his extravagances, typical, nay conventional, even in his wildest inconsequences, his most extravagant rhodomontades, paradoxical as that may seem to one unused to such flowers of speech. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Murdough Blakes had talked just as big, and done just as little, strutted their hour in just the same fashion over the self-same rocks, and felt themselves equally exceptionally fine young fellows long before this one had come into existence. That Grania would be doing very well, really exceptionally well for herself in marrying him he honestly believed, though it would have been difficult to show any particular grounds for the conviction. In any case they would have been married before this, only that it happened there was no roof ready for them, Honor being too ill for another inmate to be brought into the O'Malleys' house, while, on the other hand, Grania would not leave her, even if she could have made up her mind to share the two-roomed cabin up at Alleenageeragh in which Murdough himself lived, in company with a widowed mother, a grown-up sister, a couple of younger brothers, sundry domestic animals, and a bed-ridden great aunt.
As regards his marked desirability as a husband, she fortunately thoroughly agreed with him. To marry anyone but Murdough Blake would have seemed to her as impossible as to be herself anyone but Grania O'Malley. True, there had been troubles between them of late, some of them rather serious troubles, but no troubles, however serious, could touch that central point, the keystone and cardinal fact of her existence. For money, for instance, Murdough showed a perfectly perennial thirst—money, that is to say, earned by anyone in the world but himself. Another thirst, too, he already showed symptoms of possessing, more apt even than this to deepen and increase as the years rolled on. These, and some other matters besides, were a source of no little trouble to Grania, all the more that she never spoke of them to Honor. She had one great panacea, however, for any and every trouble—a panacea which it were well that we all of us possessed. Oh, troubled fellow-mortals, self-tormented, nerve-ridden, live incessantly in the open air, live under the varied skies, heedless, if you can, of their vagaries, and, if you do, surely sooner or later you will reap your reward ! Grania O'Malley had reaped hers, or rather it had come to her without any sowing or reaping, which is the best and most natural way. She had a special faculty; too, for such living—one which all cannot hope either to have or to acquire. She could dig, she could chop, she could carry, she could use her muscles in every sort of outdoor labour as a man uses his, and, moreover, could find a joy in it all. For words, unlike Murdough, she had no talent. Her thoughts, so far as she had any conscious thoughts, would not clothe themselves in them. They stood aside, dumb and helpless. Her senses, on the other hand;, were exceptionally wide awake, while for sheer muscular strength, and endurance she had hardly her match amongst the young men of the three islands. This was a universally-known fact, admitted by everyone, and a source of no small pride to herself; as well as of prospective satisfaction to Murdough. A wife that would work for you—not spasmodically, but from morning till night—a wife that would take all trouble off your hands; a wife that actually liked working!—could a brilliant young man with a marked talent for sociability desire anything better ?
Upon that particular morning, as upon nearly every other morning throughout the year, Grania had left the cabin early, after settling Honor in her usual corner for the day, and had taken down the cow to pasture it upon the bent-grass growing upon the seashore at the foot of the hill, not far from where the two sisters owned a small strip of potato-ground.
It was a bleak, unfriendly day, bitterly cold, with driving showers, though the month was already April. The sea, whenever she chanced to raise her head to look at it, was of a dull blackish purple, varied with vicious, windy-looking streaks of white along the edges of the rocks over which the rollers were sweeping heavily. 'Moonyeen,' the short-horned cow, was eagerly cropping the scanty grass, her head turned intelligently away from the blast. It was strictly forbidden, by the way, for anyone to pasture cattle on this bent-grass, and that for the excellent reason that a breach once made in it the wind got in, and the whole became once more a mere driving waste of sand. The agent for the property, however, lived away on Aranmore, at a safe distance across Gregory's Sound, and everyone upon the Middle island did, therefore, as they pleased in this respect, and Grania O'Malley did like the rest.
She had been digging hard in her potato-patch ever since breakfast-time, and her drills were now nearly finished, and she herself felt comfortably tired, and satisfied. There is no room for ploughs upon Inishmaan, since no horse or even pony could turn upon the tiny spots of tillage so hardly captured from its stones. Donkeys and ponies are, indeed, kept by many of the islanders, but chiefly to carry the loads of kelp to and from the coast. Grania O'Malley had neither one nor the other, though many poorer neighbours possessed both. She was so strong that it would have seemed to her a sheer waste of good fodder, and she carried her own loads of kelp and seaweed persistently up and down the hill, till towards evening she would often find her eyes shutting of themselves from sheer fatigue, and she would fall asleep before the cabin-fire like a dog that has been all day hunting.
She was only waiting now to begin her midday meal of cold potatoes and griddle-bread for little Phelim Daly, who came with the regularity of a winter-fed robin to share them with her. She wondered that he had not yet appeared, and sat down upon a piece of rock to wait for him. Before she had been sitting there many minutes she saw the wild little figure coming towards her, across the slabs of rock. He was rather tall for his age, with the air of some sickly, ill-thriven plant that has run to waste, his pale blue, restless eyes looking up with the piteous expression of a forlorn, neglected animal for which no one cares, and which has almost ceased to care about itself. He came and squatted down close to her side upon a smaller bit of rock which rose out of the sandy soil, his thin legs stretched out in front of him, his eyes looking piteously up at her out of his small white face.
'Is it hungry you are, acushla?' she asked, noticing his expression; then, without waiting for an answer, went and fetched a cake of griddle-bread tied up in a hand-kerchief which she had left at a little distance.
'Phelim is hungry; yes, Grania O'Malley, Phelim is very, very hungry,' the boy answered in a curiously forlorn, far-away voice, as if the subject had hardly any special reference to himself.
'Here, then; God help the child! Here!' and she thrust a large lump of griddle-bread into his limp, unchildish hands.
He began breaking off pieces from it and thrusting them into his mouth, but carelessly and as if mechanically, looking before him the while with the same vacant, far-away gaze.
'Phelim's legs hurt,' he presently said dreamily. 'The wind was bad to Phelim last night. Phelim was asleep and the wind came and said, "Get up, Phelim; get up, sonny." So Phelim got up. It was dark—och, but it was dark; you couldn't see anything only the darkness. Phelim wanted to crawl back to his bed again, but the wind kept calling and calling, "Come out, Phelim! Come out, Phelim !" so he went out. And when he got outside the clouds were all running races round and round the sky,. and he set off running after them, and he ran and he ran till he had run all round Inishmaan. And when he could run no further he fell down. But the wind wouldn't let him lie still, and kept saying, "Get up, sonny! Get up, Phelim!" Then when Phelim couldn't get up it went away, quite away. So Phelim lay still a while, and thought he was back in his bed. But by-and-by big crawling things, white things and red things, and black, came crawling, crawling up, one after the other, out of the sea and over the rocks and over the sands and over Phelim, up his legs and along his back and into his neck. Then Phelim let a great screech, for the fright had hold of him. And he screeched and he screeched and he screeched and—and that's why Phelim's legs are so bad to-day,' and he began slowly rubbing them up and down with one skinny, claw-like hand.
Grania shivered and crossed herself. She knew it was all nonsense, that he had been only dreaming, still, everyone was aware that there often were wicked things about at night, and it made her uncomfortable to listen to him.
'Och, 'tis just the cold that ails you; nothing else, avic,' she said decisively. 'Here, wrap yourself up in this. God help the child! 'tis a mere bundle of bones he is,' she added to herself as she put the white flannel petticoat, which served her as a cloak, round the boy as he sat crouched in a bundle upon the bit of rock, the cold wind scourging his legs and blowing the sand into his weary-looking pale blue eyes.
She left him to go and fetch her spade, which was at the other end of the ridge. When she came back he had slipped behind the larger of the two pieces of rock, and, with her petticoat huddled about him like a shawl, was lying flat upon his stomach, engaged in picking out small morsels of white quartz which had got mixed with the other pebbles, and ranging them in a row, whispering something to each of them as, he did so.
Grania stopped to look at him. 'What are you doing now, avic?' she asked curiously.
The boy turned at her voice, and looked up with the same vague, forlorn expression, not having evidently heard or understood. Then when she had repeated her question:
'It was the little stones,' he said dreamily.
'Well, and what about the little stones, child?' '
'Twas something the little stones was telling Phelim. The wind is bad to the little stones. The stones cry, cry, cry. There is one little stone here that cries most of all ; there is no other stone on Inishmaan that cries so loud.'
Grania stooped and looked at the pebbles as if to discover something more than common in them.
'Do all the things speak to you, Phelim?' she asked inquisitively.
'Then they do not; no, Grania O'Malley. Once Phelim heard nothing. The wind was gone ; there was nothing—nothing at all, at all. All at once something said, "There is nothing now on Inishmaan but Phelim." Then Phelim was more afraid of Phelim than of anything else, and he began to screech and screech. he screeched—och, but he screeched! Phelim did screech that night, Grania O'Malley !'
'Arrah, 'tis worse you are getting every day, child, with your nonsense,' she said with a sort of rough motherliness. ' Here, come away with you; we'll go look for Murdough Blake on the rocks yonder: maybe he'll give you a fish to take to your mammy. Come!' She stuck her spade upright in the soil as she spoke and held out her hand.
Phelim got up and trotted obediently beside her down the slope. Having crossed the sandy tract, under the broken walls of the old church of Cill-Cananach they got out upon the rocks beyond, half hidden now by the rising tide.
At the extreme end, where these rocks broke suddenly into deep water, a figure was standing fishing, a tall, broad-shouldered figure, looking even larger than it actually was, as everything did against that vacant background.
Grania hastened her steps. A curious look was beginning to dawn in her face: an habitual, or rather a recurrent, one, as anyone would have known who had been in the habit of watching her. It was a look of vague expectation, undefined but unmistakable; a look of suppressed excitement, which seemed to pervade her whole frame. What there was to expect, or what there was to be particularly excited about, she would have been puzzled herself to explain. There the feeling was, however, and so far it had survived many disappointments.
Murdough Blake turned as they came up, vehement displeasure clouding his good-looking, blunt-featured face.
'It is the devil's own bad fishing it is to-day, so it is!' he exclaimed, pointing to the rock beside him, upon which a few small pollock and bream were flapping feebly in their last agonies. 'Two hours, my God! it is I am here—two hours and more! I ask you, Grania O'Malley, is that a proper lot of fish for two hours' catching? And Teige O'Shaughinessy that caught seven-and-forty in less time yesterday—seven-and-forty, not one less, and he a boccach [cripple]! Is it fair? My God! I ask you is it fair?'
Phelim had squatted down like a small seal upon a flat-topped bit of rock, evidently expecting to wait there for another hour at least. Murdough, however, was delighted at their coming. he had been only pining for an excuse to break off his occupation.
'It is not myself will stop any longer for such fishing as that, so it is not!' he exclaimed indignantly. 'My faith and word no! , Why would I stop? Is it to be looking at the sea? God knows I have seen enough of the sea! Enough and more than enough!'
Grania offering no objection to this very natural indignation, he rolled up his line, collected the fish, and they turned back together across the rocks.