The meal over she got up, went to the door, and stood awhile looking down the gully towards the seashore. It was getting dusk, and the night was strangely cold. The wind sweeping in from the north-east felt rough and harsh. No screen or protection of any sort was to be found upon this side of the island. Worse still, fuel was scarce and dear. As a rule, the poor suffer less in Ireland from cold than from most of the other ills of life. A smoke-saturated cabin is warm if it is nothing else. Turf; too, is generally abundant; often to be had for the trouble of fetching it home. In the Aran isles there are no bogs, consequently there is no turf, and the cost of carriage from the mainland has to be added, therefore, to its price. The traffic, too, being in a few hands, those few make their own profit out of it, and their neighbours are more or less at their mercy.
Upon Inishmaan, the most retrograde of the three islands, turf is scarcer and dearer than on either Aranmore or Inisheer. Sometimes the supply vanishes utterly in the winter, and until fresh turf can be fetched from the mainland the greatest suffering prevails; dried cowdung and every other substitute having to be resorted to to supply its place. Grania was always careful to lay in a good supply of turf in the autumn, and the sisters rick was noted as the tallest and solidest on the island. This year, however, it had melted mysteriously away, much earlier than usual. They had burned a good deal, for the winter had been a severe one, and the sick woman suffered greatly from cold. Still Grania had suspicions that someone had been tampering with their rick, though, so far, she had said nothing about the matter to Honor, not wishing her to be troubled about it.
It was nearly time now to go down and see if the kelp fire was burning, and to set it in order for the night—the last task always in the day during the kelp-burning season. Murdough Blake had promised to meet her there, and the consciousness of this made her feel dimly remorseful at the thought of again leaving Honor, although the kelp fire had to be seen to, and she had no intention of lingering a minute longer than she could help. With this idea in her mind she turned to look at her sister, a mere shadow now in her dusky corner, from which the hacking sound of a cough broke, with mournful iteration, upon the silence. A sudden feeling of pity, a sudden intense sense of contrast, swept over the girl's mind as she did so. She would have been incapable of putting the thought into words, but she felt it, nevertheless. Herself and Honor! What a difference! Yet why? Why should it be so? Honor so good, so patient, she herself so much the contrary! With that strong pictorial faculty which comes of an out-of-door life, she already saw herself racing down the hill towards the shore where the kelp fire was built ; already felt the gritty texture of the rocks under her feet, the peculiarly springy sensation that the overhanging lip of one ledge always lent as you sprang from it to the next beyond; saw herself arriving in the narrow stony gorge where the kelp was burnt; saw the glow of its fire, a narrow trough of red ashes half covered and smothered with seaweed; saw Murdough Blake coming through the dusk to meet her. At this point a mixture of sensations, too complicated to be quite comfortable, came over her, and she left her momentary dreams for the reality, which at least was straightforward enough.
'Is there e'er a thing I can do, sister, before I go?' she asked.
'Ne'er a thing at all, child. 'Tis asleep you'll find me most like when you come back,' Honor answered cheerfully.
Grania left a cup with water in it within the sick woman's reach, covered the fire with ashes, so that it might keep alight, laid her own cloak over Honor, and went out.
She was already late, and Murdough, she knew, had the strongest possible objections to being kept waiting; accordingly she hurried down the rocky incline at a pace that only one accustomed from babyhood to its intricacies could have ventured to go.
As she hurried along her own movements brought the blood tingling through her veins, and her spirits rose insensibly. She felt glad and light, she hardly herself knew why. Leaping from one rocky level to another, her feet beat out a ringing response to the clink of the grooved and chiselled rocks against which they struck. Once she stopped a moment to clutch at a tuft of wood sorrel, springing out of a fissure, and crammed it all, trefoiled leaves and half-expanded pale grey flowers, into her mouth, enjoying the sweet sub-acid flavour as she crunched them up between her strong white teeth.
Better fed than most of her class, her own mistress, without grinding poverty, the mere joy of life, the sheer animal zest and intoxication of living was keener in her than it often is in those of her own rank and sex in Ireland. Of this she was herself dimly aware. Did others find the same pleasure merely in breathing—merely in moving and working—as she did, she sometimes wondered. Even her love for Honor—the strongest feeling but one she possessed—the despair which now and then swept over her at the thought of losing her, could not check this. Nay, it is even possible that the enforced companionship for so many hours of the day and night of that a pitiful sick-bed, the pain and weakness which she shared, so far as they could be shared, lent a sort of reactionary zest to the freedom of these wild rushes over the rocks and through the cold sea air. She did not guess it herself, but so no doubt it was.
The dusk lingers long in the far northwest, and upon the Aran islands longer apparently than elsewhere, owing to their shining environment of sea and still more to their treeless rain-washed surfaces, which reflect every atom of light as upon a mirror. It was getting really dark now, however, and the sea below her was all one dull purplish grey, barred at long intervals with moving patches of a yet deeper shadow. Splashes of white or pale yellowish lichens flung upon the dark rocks stood out here and there, looking startlingly light and distinct as she neared them. They might have been dim dancing figures, or strange grimacing faces grinning at her out of the obscurity. Over everything hung an intense sense of saltness—in the air, upon the rocks, on the short grass which crisped under foot with the salty particles as with a light hoar-frost. Fragments of dry crumpled-up seaweed, like black rags, lay about everywhere, showing that the kelp fires were not far off.
She hastened her steps. Was Murdough already there? she wondered. He was. As she came round the corner she saw him leaning against a big boulder, a 'Stranger' like the one that blocked the mouth of their own gully; ice-dropped granite blocks whose pale rounded forms stud by thousands the darker limestone of the islands.
'My faith and word, Grania O'Malley, but it is the late woman you are to-night!' he said, straightening himself from his lounging posture and speaking in a tone of offence.
'I know I am, Murdough agra!'
There was a tone of unusual submissiveness about the girl's voice as she advanced towards him through the dusk; a look almost of shyness in her eyes as she lifted them to his in the dimness.
'My faith and word but it is the long time, the very long time, I have been kept waiting. And it is the ugly lonely place for a man to be kept waiting in!' he continued in the same aggrieved tone. 'And it was not to please myself I came either. No, it was not, but just to help you with the kelp fire. And it is not one foot of me I would have come—no, nor the half of a foot—if I had thought you would have served me so.'
'Honor kept me. 'Tis sick she is this evening, worse than common,' Grania answered simply. 'Was it wanting me very badly you were, Murdough agra?' she added, in the same tone as before.
'Yes, it was wanting you very badly I was, Grania O'Malley, for it was the Fear Darrig I could not help thinking of; and that it was just the place to see him, and it was that made me want you, for they say two people do never see him at the one time, and it is not I that want to see him now, nor at any time—not at all, so I do not!'
'My grandfather, he saw the Fear Darrig many's the time,' Murdough continued, presently, in a more amicable tone; 'he would, maybe, be setting his lines at night and it would look up at him sudden out of the water. Once, too, he told my grandmother he was up near the big Worm hole and it run at him on a sudden, and danced up and down before him, for all the world like a red Boffin pig gone mad. Round and round it ran as clear as need be in the moonlight, laughing and leaping and clapping its hands, and he praying for the bare life all the while, and shutting his eyes for fear of what he'd see, and not a single saint in the whole sky minding him, no more than if he'd been an old black Protestant bellringer!'
'You have never seen the Fear Darrig, have you, Murdough?' Grania asked with a slightly mocking accent, as she began to busy herself with collecting the dry sea-weed and heaping it upon the smouldering fire.
'Well, then, I have not, Grania O'Malley, but a man that is in Galway and lives near Spiddal—a tall big man he is, by the name of O'Rafferty—he told me that he had seem him not long since. He was going to a fair to sell some chickens that his wife had been rearing—fine young spring chickens they were—and he had them tied in an old basket and it on his back. And he had to go across a place where the sea runs bare, and the tide being out, there were big black rocks sticking up everywhere. It was a strange, lonesome place, he said, full of big hollows between the rocks, and he didn't half like the look of it, for the day was very dark and he was afraid every minute the tide might be coming in on him, and the basket on his back kept slipping and slipping with every step he made, and not another creature near him, good or bad. "Arrah! what will I do now, at all, at all?" says he to himself, when, all of a sudden, he heard a sort of a croaking noise behind him, and he turned round, and there on the top of one of the rocks sat a little old man with a face as red as a ferret, and an old red hat on his head, and he croaking like a scald crow and squinting at him out of the two eyes.'
Murdough paused dramatically, but Grania merely went on stacking her seaweed, and he had to continue his narrative without any special encouragement.
'Well, O'Rafferty, he just took one look he told me, no more, and with that he dropped the basket that was on his back, with the spring chickens in it and all, and he set to running, and he run and he run till he was over the place, and away with him across the fields beyond, and never stopped till he had run the breath all out of his body, and himself right into the middle of the place where the fair was held! And it was the devil's own abuse he got from his wife, so it was, he said, when he got home that night, for letting her fine spring chickens be drowned on her, which she had been months upon months of rearing.'
'Then it is the cowardly man I think he was,' Grania said scornfully, lifting her head from her work for a moment. 'If it had been me, I would have looked twice, so I would, and not anyway have let the young chickens be lost and drowned in the sea.'
'Then I do not think he was the cowardly man at all,' Murdough replied warmly; 'and for chickens, what is the use of fine spring chickens or of money itself, or of a thing good or bad, if a man's life is all but the same as lost with him being terrified out of his senses with looking at what no man ought to be looking at? It is quite right, I think, Patrick O'Rafferty was, and it is what I would have done myself—yes, indeed I would.'
Grania answered nothing, but, her face did not relax from its indifferent, scornful expression, as with skilful hand she rapidly fed the kelp fire from the big black heap of seaweed hard by.
Murdough, however, was by this time in the full swing of narrative. All he cared for was an audience, whether sympathetic or unsympathetic mattered little.
'It is a very strange thing, so it is, a very strange thing, but it is not the worst things that give a man often the worst frights, so it is not,' he said, in a tone of profound reflection. 'I have been out in the boats many and many a time when the sea would be getting up, and the other boys about me would be screaming and praying, and in the devil's own fright, fearing lest they'd be drowned. Well, now, I was not frightened then—no, not one little bit in the world, Grania O'Malley, no more than if I had been at home and in my bed! The very worst fright ever I got in my life—well, I cannot tell you what it was that frightened me so, no, I cannot! I was out by myself in Martin Kelly's curragh, fishing for the mackerel, and it was getting a bit dark, but the sea was not wild, not to say wild at all; there was no reason to be frightened, no reason in life, when all at once—like that—I took the fright! I did not want to take it, you may believe me, and I cannot tell you, no, I cannot, to this day, nor never, what it was frightened me so. It was just as if there were two people in the inside of me, and one of them laughed at the other and said, "Why, Murdough Blake, man alive, what the devil ails you to-day?" but the other he never answered a single word, only shook and shook till it seemed as if the clothes on my back would be all shaken to pieces.'
'And what did you do?' Grania asked, pausing in her stacking, and leaning upon her fork to listen.
'Well, then, I will tell, you what I did, yes I will, Grania O'Malley. I just shut my eyes tight, and I rowed, and I rowed. How I rowed and my two eyes shut tight, I cannot tell you, but I did. If I had opened them ever so little I made sure I should have seen—God alone knows what I would have seen, but something worse than any living man ever saw before. Once I heard a gull scream close to my head, and I screamed myself too, yes, I did, my faith and honour, never a word of lie. The clothes on my back they were wet as the sea itself with sweat, what with the fright and the way I was rowing, and when I got close to the rocks I just opened my eyes a little weeshy bit—like that —and peeped out between my eyelids, trembling all the while from head to foot with what I might see and saying every prayer I could remember, and—Well! there was nothing there—nothing at all, no more than there is on the palm of my hand!'
And he opened it wide, dramatically, to demonstrate his assertion.
This time Grania listened without any protest, mental or otherwise. Like every Celt that ever was born she perfectly understood these sudden unexplainable panics, more akin to those that affect sensitive animals, horses particularly, than anything often felt by more stolid and apathetic bipeds. Though. not overflowing in words, as Murdough's did, her imagination was perhaps even more alive than his to those dim formless visions which people the dusk, and keep alive in the Celt a sense of vague presences, unseen but realisable—survivals of a whole world of forgotten beliefs, unfettered by logic, untouched by education, hardly altered even by later and more conscious beliefs, which have rather modified these earlier ones than superseded them.
The kelp fire was by this time made up, and after beating down the top of it so that it might keep alight all night, they turned and walked back together through the darkness. The wind, which had been rising for an hour past, blew with a dreary raking noise over the naked platforms. Stepping carefully, so as to avoid the innumerable fissures, slippery as the crevasses upon a glacier, they presently reached a narrow track, or 'bohereen,' which led between two lines of loosely-piled walls back to the neighbourhood of the O'Malleys' cabin.
It was almost absolutely pitch dark. Below them the sea was one vast indistinguishable moaning waste. A single tall standing stone—one of the many relics of the past which cover the islands—rose up against it like some vaguely-warning signpost. Stars showed by glimpses, but the clouds rolled heavily, and the night promised to be an unpleasant one.
Grania felt vaguely irritated and unhappy, she did not know why. That sense of elation with which she had run down over the rocks an hour ago had passed away, and was replaced by a feeling of discomfort quite as frequent with her as the other, especially when she and Murdough had been for some time together. Everything seemed to irritate her—the wind; the stones against which she stumbled; the clouds tossing and drifting over her head; even the familiar moan of the sea had an unexplainable irritation that night for her ear. Looking up at him as he strode along beside her, a dim but substantial shadow in the darkness, this sense of intense, though causeless, vexation was especially strong. There were moments when it would have given her the deepest satisfaction to have fallen upon him and beaten him soundly then and there with her fists, so irritated was she, and so puzzled, too, by her own irritation. Of all this, fortunately, he knew and suspected nothing. His own private and particular world—the one in which he lived, breathed, and shone—was as far apart as the poles from hers. A vast untravelled sea stretched between them, and neither could cross from one to the other.
They parted at last upon the top of the ridge, close to the head of the sprawling monster which always lay there, half buried beneath the rocks, Murdough keeping straight on along the bohereen towards Alleenageeragh, Grania turning short off across the lower platform, which speedily brought her home.