Inside the cabin was very dark, and Honor's thin white face showed ghost-like against this setting. She was half sitting, half lying, upon her bed, with her eyes closed, though she was not asleep, a board and a pillow covered with a bit of old striped cotton supporting her Everything around had the peculiarly chocolate hue of peat. The cabin was clean—for an Irish cabin commendably clean—but the whole had the deeply-dyed, almost black, hue of a Rembrandt back-ground. The face of the sick woman herself might have come from the canvas of quite a different master. Early Italian painters have all tried their hands at it. How well we know it!—that peculiar look, a look of toil-worn peace—peace caught as it were out of the inmost heart of pain;—the hollow cheek, the deeply-marked eye-sockets, the eyes looking out as prisoners' eyes look from their dungeon bars;—we all recognise it when great art shows it to us, though rarely, if ever, otherwise. Upon a canvas Honor O'Malley's face might have been the face of a saint or a martyr. It was the face of a saint or a martyr, as saints and martyrs find their representation in these days of ours. Three long years the poor woman had lain there dying. Consumption had its hold upon her. It had been very slow and deliberate in its approaches—nay, in its earlier stage might have been arrested altogether had there been any means at hand of attempting anything of the sort, which, of course, there were not. Who can say what hours of pain had worn themselves out in that smoke-dyed corner? Who can say how many supplications had risen out of its recesses, how often the eternal complaint of the sea licking the base of the cliffs had seemed to Honor the voice of her own silent complaining, the unresting cry of the night wind her own dumb cries made audible? She had won peace now. She was dying comparatively quickly. Mercy was fast coming nearer and nearer, and would presently touch her with its wings.
Grania' s step sounded on the rocks without, and she looked up suddenly, a smile of welcome waking in her hollow eyes
'Is it yourself, it is, allanah?' she exclaimed joyfully as the younger sister came quickly in, pushed upon the shoulders of the gust which always lurked in the throat of that gully.
''Tis myself; and 'tis wanting me you have been this while back, Honor, I know,' the girl replied in quick tones of self-reproach.
'Augh, no, child, ner a bit; 'twas only I—' here her voice was stopped by an access of coughing, which shook her from head to foot and brought a momentary flush to her poor sunken cheeks.
Grania stood by penitently, helpless till the paroxysm was exhausted and the coughing had ceased.
''Twas the potatoes,' she said apologetically when Honor again lay back, white and dry-lipped. ''Tis a bitter while they take this year, whatever the reason is; and then Phelim, the creature, came, and I got listening to him, and then Murdough Blake and—'
'Wurrah! whist with the tongue of you, and don't be telling me, child! Is it within the four walls of a house I would be keeping my bird all the long day?' the sick woman said with tender impatience. ''Tis the uselessness of me, I was going to say, kills me. Never a pot cleaned nor a thing done since morning. But there! God knows, and He sent it; so 'tis all for the best, sure and certain.'
Grania without another word picked up the three-legged black pot, and ran to fill it at the well outside, setting it down on the fire when she returned, and beginning to mix in the oatmeal by handfuls for the stirabout which was to serve for their evening rneal.
Honor lay watching her, her face still flushed from the last fit of coughing, the perspiration standing out in drops on her forehead and under her hollow eye-sockets, but a great look of content gradually spreading over her face as her eyes followed her sister's movements.
As long as it had been possible she had gone on working, long, indeed, after she ought to have ceased to do so. Her spinning wheel still stood near her in a corner, though it was nearly a year since she had been able to touch it. Her knitting lay close at hand. That she still occasionally worked at, and even managed to mend her own clothes and Grania's, and to keep her own immediate surroundings sweet and clean.
Irish cabins are not precisely bowers of refinement, yet this corner, where Honor O'Malley's life had been for years ebbing slowly away, told a tale in its way of a purity which, if it did not amount to refinement, amounted to something better. Outside the wind howled, sweeping with a vicious whirl over the long naked ledges, loosening here and there a thin flake of stone, which spun round and round for a moment like a forest leaf, then fell with a light pattering noise upon the ridge below. Inside the sods crackled dully, as the fire blown by Grania ran along their ragged brown sides, or shot into a flame whenever a stray fibre helped it on.
Besides the two owners, and not counting an itinerant population of chickens varying in ages and degrees of audacity, the cabin boasted one other inmate. The dog tax being unknown, nearly every Irish cabin has its cur, and on the Aran isles the dogs are only less numerous than the babies. The O'Malleys, however, had no dog, and their house-friend (the r in the last word might appropriately have been omitted) was a small yellow, or, rather, orange-coloured, cat, noted as having the worst temper of any cat upon Inishmaan. Whether in consequence of this temper, or in spite of it, there was no cat who appeared to have also so constant a train of feline adorers. Remote as the O'Malleys' cabin stood, it was the recognised rendezvous of every appreciative Tom upon the island, so that at night it was sometimes even a little startling to open the door suddenly and catch the steady glitter of a row of watchful eyes, or to see three, four, or five retreating forms creeping feloniously away over the rocks.
''Tis the milk she does be tasting already, the little snaking beast,' Honor said, pointing to it, as it sat furtively licking its lips close to the hearth.
Grania struck the cat a light tap on the nose with the iron spoon she was stirring the pot with, an insult to which it responded with a vicious spitting mew, and a backward leap, which seemed to set all its orange-coloured coat on edge in a moment.
'Was it along by the sea-way you were to-day, allanah?' Honor pursued presently.
'I was, sister.'
'Did you pass by the old chapel?'
'I did, Honor.'
'Then you said, I'll be bound, a prayer at the little old cross for me, as I bade you do?'
'Well, then, Honor, I will not tell you a lie—no, I will not—but I never once thought of it,' Grania replied penitently. 'You see, Murdough Blake he was with me, and we got colloguing. But sure, sister asthor, don't fret, and I'll go to-morrow by the first streak of day and say as many as ever you tell me, so I will, Honor.'
Honor for answer sighed and lay back against the wooden settle as if some habitual source of trouble was weighing upon her mind.
'Grania, it is a bad thing for you that there is no priest on Inishmaan, a very bad thing,' she said, earnestly, an ever-present source of anxiety coming to the front, as it often did when she and Grania were alone. 'How is a young girsha to learn true things if there is no one in it to teach her? When I lie at night in bed thinking, thinking, I think of you Grania, and I pray to God and the Holy Mother, and to all the tender saints, that it may not be laid, against you. Sure how can the child know, I say, and she never taught? The Holy Mother will know how 'twas, and may be when I get there, Grania, she'll let me say the word, and show that it was no fault of yours, allanah, for how could you know and none here to teach you, only me that knows nothing and less than nothing myself?'
Grania's fierce grey eyes filled for a moment. Then with a sudden impulse she flung her head back, lifting the iron spoon she had just tapped the cat's nose with, and holding it defiantly in front of her.
'Then I don't want none of them to be learning me, only you, Honor—so, I do not,' she said irritably. 'I couldn't bear to be driven or bid by any of them—so, I couldn't!'
'Is it a priest, Grania? My God! child, you don't know what you're saying! A priest! Why, everyone that ever was born into this world, man or woman, must obey a priest. You know that right well yourself, and what would be the end of them if they didn't, so you do.'
'I don't care. I would not be bid, no, not by anyone,' Grania answered defiantly. 'And the priests arn't all so good as you say, Honor, so they are not. I mind me there was a young girl over by Cashla way told me of the priest where she lived—Father Flood his name was—a terrible hard man he was, and carried a big stick, so he did, and beat the children frightful when they were bould—yes indeed. And one day she was going herself to the chapel and hurt her foot on the way, and couldn't get in till Mass was half over. And Father Flood he saw her coming up, and he frowned at her from the altar to stop by the door, and not dare come nearer. So she waited, trembling all over, and wanting to tell him what happened. But presently he come down the chapel, and when he got close to her he caught her without a word by the side hair—just here, Honor, she told me, above the ear—as he was passing by to the door, and pulled her by it right after him out of the chapel. And when they were outside he shook her up and down and backwards and forwards as hard as he could, yes, indeed, as hard as ever he could, she told me, and she crying all the time, and begging and praying of him to stop, and every time she tried to tell him what hindered her he just shook the harder, till it was time for him to be going in again, when he gave her a great push which laid her flat on the grass, and back with him himself into the chapel again. And she only ten years old and a widow's child!'
Honor sighed. ''Tis hard, God knows, 'tis hard,' she said. 'The world is a cruel place, especially for them that's weak in it. There is no end to the pain and the trouble of it, no end at all,' she said in a tone of discouragement. 'But, Grania dear, sure isn't it what we suffer that does us the good? "Pains make saints!" I heard a good woman I used to know, that's dead now, say that often. "Pains make saints," "Pains make saints,"' she repeated softly over and over to herself.
''Tisn't the hurting I'd care about,' Grania said scornfully. 'I've hurt myself often and never minded. 'Tis being bid by them that have no call or care to you. If one done to me what was done to that girl at Cashla I'd hit him back, so I would, let him be ten times a priest.'
Honor gave a sudden scream of dismay. 'Och then, whist! and whist! and whist, child!' she cried, piteously. 'What are you saying at all, at all? Saints be above us, Grania, and keep you from being heard this day, I pray, amen! Sure a priest's not a man! You know that well enough. Wurrah! wurrah! that you would speak so! And I that learned her from the start! Holy Virgin, 'tis my fault, all my fault. The child's destroyed, and all through me! My God, my God, what will I do? Och, what will I do? Och, what will I do, at all, at all?'
Grania ran remorsefully and put her arms about her sister, whose thin form was shaken as if it would fall to pieces by the sudden violence of her trouble. Honor let herself be soothed back to quietness, but her face still worked painfully, and on her pale brow and moving lips it was easy to read that she was still inwardly offering up petitions calculated to appease the wrath thus rashly evoked.
Grania's penitence was real enough so far as Honor was concerned, but it did not alter her private opinion as regards the matter in dispute. 'I'd think him a man if he hit me, let him be what he would!' she repeated to herself as she ran into the next room to fetch the milk set out of reach of the cat since the morning's milking.