Part II


Chapter VI

BUT THE atmospheric surprises of such spots as Inishmaan are inexhaustible. When next morning she again opened the cabin-door, leaving Honor asleep, the rain and storm had vanished utterly, and serenity reigned supreme over everything. The sky was such a sky as one must go to Ireland—nay, to west Ireland—to see: great rolling masses of clouds above, black or seemingly black by contrast with the pale opaque serenity beneath. Parallel with and immediately above the horizon spread a belt of sky filled with silvery clouds, pale as ghosts, rising one over the other, tier on tier, like the circles of some celestial amphitheatre. Now and then fragments of the darker region would detach themselves and go floating across this silvery portion, their shadows flung down one after the other as they went. Nowhere any direct sunlight, yet the play of light and shadow was endless; tint following tint, line following line, shade following shade in an interminable gradation of light and movement. What gave tone and peculiarity to the scene was that, owing to the wetness of the rocks and to their absolute horizontality, the whole drama of the sky was repeated twice over; the same shaft of light, seen first far off upon the most remote horizon, telling its story again and again with absolute faithfulness upon the luminous planes of rock as in a succession of enchanted mirrors.

    Grania sat down on her accustomed seat, a bit of the upper ledge which ran close to the great boulder and just at the mouth of the gully. She had hardly slept at all, for Honor had awakened coughing, probably on account of the open door, and for hours her cough had hardly ceased, the oppression having been so great that twice it had seemed as if she must suffocate before relief came. Grania had accordingly sat the greater part of the night with her arm around her, supporting her in a sitting posture, and it was not till towards six o'clock that Honor had fallen into a doze, and that she had then been able to lie down.

    She was tired out, therefore, as well as vexed by her unsuccessful chase of the night before, and her mind was now busily going over what was to be done about the turf. Already a large hole had been made in the rick, and if this went on there would not be enough left to carry them on till they got a fresh supply in the autumn. She ran over in her mind all the evil-doers of the island, trying to fix upon the one most likely to be the culprit. At first her thoughts had fixed themselves upon Shan Daly, the black sheep par excellence, and as it were officially, of Inishmaan. But Shan Daly was believed to be away at present, though no one knew where, and on the whole she inclined to think that it was more likely to have been Pete Durane, who lived on the other side of the island, a little above Allinera, and whose record was by no means a blameless one in the matter of petty larceny. The figure of which she had momentarily caught a glimpse seemed more like that of Pete Durane, too, than of Shan. Having come to this conclusion she decided to go round to the Duranes' house that morning, and see if, in the course of conversation, any suspicious circumstances came to light. She also made up her mind to watch again herself that evening. Perhaps Murdough Blake would come and watch with her too. If so, they—

    At this point a cough and faint stirring sound made itself heard from the cabin, and she got up and went in.

    Honor was lying upon her back, her face drawn amid white with the long conflict of the night. Her eyes opened, however, and turned, as they always did, with a loving look upon her sister as she entered. Grania lifted her up, propping her on her arm, and proceeded to arrange her for the day. There was only one pillow in the cabin, so that the foundation of the support by means of which she was enabled to sit erect had to be made with the aid of an old fishing kish, which Grania had adapted for the purpose. Raised upon this and the pillow over it, Honor could see quite comfortably through the open door, here, as in every Irish cabin, the chief means of observation with the outer world.

    The sun had now struggled through the clouds and shone in at the entrance with a sleepy radiance. In every direction the sound of tinkling water was to be heard, as the residue of last night's deluge dripped from a thousand invisible chinks, falling with a soft, pattering noise upon the platform which served as a sort of natural terrace to the cabin. Against the steep, wet sides of the gully the light broke in soft, prismatic gleams, which played up and down its fluted edges and over the big face of the boulder in an incessant dance of colour. The poor little weatherbeaten spot seemed filled for the moment to an almost unnatural degree with soft movement and tender, playful radiance.

    Honor gazed at it all from her bed, an expression of vague yearning growing in her patient eyes.

    Presently the brown sail of a hooker showed for a moment passing between the rocks in the direction of the mainland.

    Her eyes turned to follow it till it had passed beyond their reach.

    'That will be the Wednesday boat for Galway, Grania!' she said in a tone of mild excitement.

    Grania was not looking. Her thoughts were still with the turf, and she was going over in her mind the plan for that evening's campaign. She would tell her suspicions, she decided, to Murdough, and they would watch behind the big boulder, or perhaps at the bottom of the gully.

    'Maybe, sister,' she replied indifferently. 'It is up to the Duranes' house I must be going this morning,' she added presently. 'And, Honor, it is not the kelp I need watch this evening. Will I—will I ask Murdough Blake to come over, and sit with us a bit? It is not for a long time, he says—no, not for a long, long time—that he has seen you.'

    Honor suddenly reddened, and curious look of embarrassment came into her face.

    'Well, then, honey sweet of course you can,' she said, but in a tone of such evident reluctance that Grania could not fail to observe it.

    'What is it ails you about Murdough?' she asked curiously. 'It is not the first time, not the first by many, that you did not want him to come here. Is it that you think anyway ill of him? Is it, Honor? Say, is it?' she persisted anxiously.

    'Auch! child, no. Ill? Why would I think ill of him? 'Tis just—'tis nothing in life but my own foolishness—nothing in life but that. Heart of my soul! what wouldn't I do if you asked me? and of course he can come. But, 'tis just—Auch, 'tis laughing at me you'll be, Grania—but you know when the fit takes me I must cough, and then the phlegm—and—and—well, 'tis shamed I am, dear, shamed outright to be sitting and spitting, you know, and a young man looking at me. That's just it, and nothing else in life, only that!'

    Grania stared at her for a second open-eyed, then she, too, reddened slightly. Such a reason would certainly never have dawned upon her mind. Modest she was—no girl more so—but she took far too sturdy and out-of-doors a view of life for any such fantastic notions of delicacy as this to trouble her—notions which could only, perhaps, lurk and grow up in such a nature as Honor's, conventual by instinct, and now trebly, artificially sensitive from ill health. Honor's wishes were to be respected, however, even when they were mysterious.

    'Well, indeed, sister, I never gave thought to that,' she replied, humbly enough.

    'Auch! and why would you give thought to it? Sure, why would a young colleen like you, that's never known ache or sickness, think of such things, no more than the young flowers out there coming up through the rocks?' the other answered with eager, loving tenderness. 'And my prayer to God and the Holy Virgin is that you never may have to think of them, Grania dheelish, alannah, acushla oge machree,' she went on coaxingly, heaping up one term of endearment upon another. She was afraid that her reason, although a perfectly true and, to her mind, a perfectly reasonable one, might somehow have offended Grania. With this idea she presently went on, having first waited long enough to regain her breath.

    'Think ill of Murdough Blake? Wisha! of Murdough Blake is it? a right brine-oge of a boy and a credit to all that owns him! A likely story that, when it is a joy to me to think of the two, him and yourself, coming and living here in the old house and I dead and gone—yes, indeed, and your little children growing up round you—my blessing and the blessing of heaven be upon them, night and day, be they many or be they few! And if it was not the next thing to a sin, 'tis fretted and vexed I'd be to be stopping on in the way I am. What for? Only to be hindering two young creatures that's wanting and wishing to settle down, as is only natural, and they not able to do it, and all because of me! Sure, sister dear, 'tis begging your pardon I do be often inclined to do—yes, indeed, many's the time; only there—'tis God 'sends it, you know, and it can't be different, whether or no.'

    Grania's face had run through several variations while Honor was speaking. By the time she had finished, however, her eyes were gentle and misty.

    'A right brine-oge of a boy,' the other continued complacently, smoothing down her blanket. 'And love is a jewel that's well known all the world over'—this observation cannot be said to have been uttered with any very fervent conviction, merely in the tone of one who utters an adage, sanctioned by usage, and therefore respectable—''tisn't every colleen, either, gets the one she likes best, so it isn't, and no trouble; nothing to do but to settle down, and all ready, no questions, nor money wanted, nor a thing. 'Tis hard for a girl to have to marry a man and he nothing to her, or worse perhaps—a black stranger out of nowhere—and all for no reason but because of his wanting so many cows, or her father setting his mind on it, or the like of that. I mind me when I was a slip of a child—thirteen years old maybe, or less—there was a little girl—Mary O'Reilly her name was—barely seventeen years, no more: a soft-faced, yellow-haired little girsha, as slight and tender to look at as one of those fairy-ferns out there, when they come up first through the cracks. And there was a man belonging to Inisheer, whom they called Michael Donnellan—well, he wasn't, to say rightly, old, but he was a big, set-looking man, with a red hairy face on him, and a nasty look, somehow. 'Well, he and Mat Reilly—that's Mary O'Reilly's father—settled it up between them on night, over at the "Cruskeen Beg," and the number of cows fixed, and not a word, good or bad, only the wedding-day settled, and the priest told and all. As for Mary, all the notice she got was four days', not one more! And sure enough when the day came they all went over to Aranmore chapel, and married they were—a grand wedding—and back they came in the boats, and up to the house, and the height of eating and drinking going on, and the neighbours all asked in, and every thing! I was looking in at the back window, by the same token, and half the other girshas in the place with me, and sorry I was, too, for I was fond of poor Mary O'Reilly, though I didn't rightly understand what it all meant, being only a child at the time myself. Well, they were just setting out from the cabin, and the neighbours had all gathered round to bid them "God speed!" when all at once poor Mary, that was standing there quiet and decent as a lamb, gave a sudden screech, and she ran and she twisted her arms round the top of the doorway, that had a little space, mind you, between it and the bead of the door, so she could get her arm in. And when they went to unloose her she struck out at them and fought and kicked and bit—the innocent, peaceable creature that never lifted her hand to man or mouse before in her life!—and she cried out to them that she wouldn't leave her mammy, no, she would not, and that they might tear her into little pieces but she'd never loose hold of the door. Just think of it! the shame and the disgrace before the whole country! Her mother tried to unloose her, though she was crying fit to burst all the time herself. And the man that was her husband since the morning went up to her, and spoke rough to her—the beast!—and told her she must come with him at once. And she cried out that she would not go with him, no, not unless he took her away in little pieces, for that she hated the sight of him and his red face, and that she would kill herself, and him too, rather than go a foot with him! Och, vo, vo! that was a day—my God! that was a day! However, take her away with him he did, somehow or other, and ugly and sulky he looked in his new clothes, and his face redder than ever, being made such a baulyore [Laughing-stock] before them all—and she crying and screaming to her mammy to keep her, and the old man holding back his wife that was fighting to get to her—and away with the two of them in a curragh to Inisheer, where he lived!'

    'And what did she do when he got her there? Did she kill him? 'Tis I would have killed him, no fear of me but I would !' Grania exclaimed eagerly, her upper lip raised as she used to raise it when she was a child, showing the white teeth below.

    '"Kill him"? Arrah! nonsense, girl alive; the creature hadn't it in her to kill a fly, no, nor the hundredth part of the half of a fly. What did she do? Sure, she did as every other woman has done since the world began; what else had she to do, God help her? Och, vo, vo! marrying is a black job for many and many a one, and so I tell you, child, though it's little, I dare say, you believe me. I often think that it was seeing poor Mary that same day gave me the first strong turn against it myself—so I do,' Honor ended meditatively.

    Grania frowned till her brows met, but made no further comment on the story.'

    'Yes, indeed, I do think that 'twas seeing Mary O'Reilly hanging on to that old door, and her mother crying and all, set me so against it then, I do really!' Honor went on complacently. 'It wasn't that I couldn't have married well enough if I had wanted it, mind you! There was an old man—you've often heard me talk of him—up by Polladoo way; rich he was—oh, my God! he was rich!—nigh upon two cantrells of land he rented, not a foot less, and my father was mad with me to marry him—said once he'd turn me out of the house on to the bare sea rocks if I didn't! But your mother, Grania, that wasn't long in it then herself, helped me, so she did—may her bed in Glory be the sweeter and the easier for it this day I pray! That was the worst time ever I had at all, at all!—the very worst time of all,' Honor added reflectively.

    Grania looked up. A new idea, a sudden curiosity, was stirring in her mind.

    'But did you never care for e'er a one, Honor?' she asked, reddening and speaking quickly: 'never for e'er a one at all—not when you were young? Sure, Honor, you must! Think a bit, sister, and tell me. Arrah! why wouldn't you tell me? Isn't it all past and done now?'

    '"Care"? Is it I, child? "Care" ! God keep you, no! What would ail me to care?' the elder sister asked in tones of genuine astonishment. 'Auch! men is a terrible trouble, Grania, first, and last. What with the drink and the fighting and one thing and another, a woman s life is no better than an old garron's down by the seashore once she's got one of them over her driving her the way he chooses' She paused, and a new look, this time a look of unmistakable passion, came into her face. 'Oh, no, Grania asthore, 'tis a nun I would have loved to be; oh, my God! yes, that is the beautiful life! Pulse of my heart, sister avilish, there's nothing for a woman like being a nun—nothing, nothing! Praying and praying from morning till night, and nought to do, only what you're bid, and a safe fair walk before you to heaven, without a turn, or the fear of a turn, to right or left! Sure, 'tis all over now, as you say, but many 's the time, och many's and many 's the time, Grania, and for years upon years, I cried myself to sleep because I couldn't be a nun. 'Tis on that little bed you do be sleeping on now I'd be lying, and father and poor Phil, that's dead, snoring one against the other as if it was for money, and the wind blowing, and the sea and rocks grinding against each other the way they do, and I would think of the big world and the cruel things that do be going on in it, and the ugly ways of men that frightened me always, and then of the convent, and the chapel and the pictures and the garden—for I saw it all once, at Galway, at the Sisters of Mercy there—and my heart would go out in a great cry: "Oh, my God, make me a nun! Oh, my God, won't You let me be a nun! My God! my God! You'll let me be a nun, won't You? Arrah my God! won't You? won't You?"'

    She lay back in the bed, her face flushed, her breath came fast; old passion was stirring vehemently within her. For such passion as this, however, Grania had no sympathy, Honor's aspirations in this respect having all her life been a source of irritation to her.

    'Then it is not myself would like to be a nun,' she exclaimed defiantly. 'And I think it was real bad of you, Honor, so I do, to have wanted to go away. What would have become of any of us without you, and of me most of all? Did you never think of that? Say, Honor, did you never think of that?'

    'Arrah! whist! child, I know it, I know it. You needn't be telling me, for I've told myself so a hundred times,' Honor answered eagerly. 'And maybe it's all for the best now the way it is; anyhow, the end is not far off, and God and the Holy Virgin will know it was not my fault. I had the heart in me to be a nun, if ever a woman had, and it's the heart that's looked to there—the heart and nothing else. And as to my not thinking of you! why, you little rogora dhu, you black rogue of the world, God forgive me if I've thought of anything else, child, since the first hour I had you to myself! 'Twasn't in it nor thought of, you were at all, in those times I'm speaking of, nor would have been but for father seeing your mother, a stranger come over from the Joyce country, dancing at old Malachy O'Flaherty's wake, and all the young fellows in the place after her. What ailed him to think of marrying her I never could fancy! A man past forty years of age and a widower, too! An extraordinary thing and scarce decent! No fortune to her, neither, nothing but a pair of big black eyes—the very same as those two shining in your own head this minute—and the walk, so people said, of a queen. A good girl she was—I'm not saying anything against her, poor Delia—and I cried myself sick the day she died, for she was a kind friend to me. But there was yourself, Grania, screeching and kicking, and making the devil's own commotion with wanting to be fed. Somehow, once I got you into my arms, and no one near you but myself, I disremember ever wanting again to be a nun, so I do.'

    Grania's fierce look softened. ''Tis a mother you've been to me, sure enough, all my life, sister,' she said gently.

    '"Mother" ! Wisha! child, with your "mother"! 'Tisn't much I think of mothers, I can tell you! There's mothers enough in the world and to spare, too! Anyone can be a mother—small thanks to them! Oh, no, Grania sweet, acushha machree, love of my heart, 'tis your soul, 'tis the precious, precious soul of you that I've always wanted, and cried after, and longed for, ever since first I had you to myself. Sure, if I could only feel easy about that I'd die the happiest woman ever yet had a footboard laid on her face. Oh, my pet, my bird, my little deerfoor asthore, won't you try to turn to Him when I'm gone? Remember, I'll be near, maybe, though you won't see me. Sure, if it was to do you any good, I'd stop a hundred years longer than need be in the place Father Tom tells of, or a thousand either, for I don't mind pain, being so used to it, and think it all joy and sweetness.' Honor lifted her head a little in the bed and raised her soft brown eyes imploringly towards her sister. 'Oh, Grania dheelish, pulse of my soul, what's this life at all, at all, short or long, easy or hard—what is it, what is it but a dream? just a dream, no better!' she cried with sudden passion, that sisterly passion into which everything else had long been merged. 'If I could only make sure of meeting my bird in heaven, if it was a thousand years off and a thousand on the top of that, and ten thousand more at the hinder end of that, sure, what would it matter? Oh, child asthore, think of us two, you and me, standing up there together, holding one another by the two hands, and knowing we'd never be separated no more!—never, never, sun or shine, winter or summer—never as long as God lived, and that's for ever and ever! Oh, child, child! when that thought comes over me, 'tis like new life in my veins and new blood, in my poor heart. I feel as if I could get out of my bed, and go leaping and dancing over the rocks to the sea, or up into the air itself like the birds, so I do.'

    Her strength, momentarily sustained, suddenly broke down, and her voice sank so as to be almost inaudible. 'You wouldn't disappoint me, Grania, dear? Sure you wouldn't disappoint your poor old Honor, that never loved man or woman, chick or child, only yourself?' she whispered, the words coming out one by one with difficulty.

    Grania's eyes filled, and she let Honor take her hand and hold it in her two worn ones, which were grown so thin that they seemed made of a different substance from her own toil-roughened one. But though she was touched and would have done anything to please Honor, she could not even pretend to respond to the sick woman's eager longing. She would have done so if she could, but it was impossible. The whole thing was utterly foreign and alien to her. There was nothing in it. which she could catch hold of, nothing that she could feel to attach any definite idea to. Fond as she was of Honor. unwilling as she was to vex her, her whole attitude, her excessive urgency, worried her. What ailed her to talk so, to have such queer ways and ideas? Was it because she was sick, because she was dying? Did all sick people talk and feel like that? Was it possible that she would ever feel anything of the sort if she were sick, if she were going to die? She did not believe it for a minute. The youth in her veins cried for life, life! sharp-edged life, life with the blood in it, not for a thin bloodless heaven that no one could touch or prove.

    Turning away, she made an excuse, therefore, of having to go and see after the calf, and ran hastily out of the cabin door into the sunlight, leaving it open behind her.

    Left alone, Honor's eyes kept dreamily following the yellow bands of light as they spread in ever-widening streams across the rocks. Over the top of the gully she could see a space of sky, which seemed to her to be not only bluer, but also higher than usual. She tilted her head a little backwards so as to be able to look farther and farther up, higher and higher still, into this dim, mysterious distance, gradually forgetting all troubles, vexatious, hindrances, as her eyes lost themselves in that untravelled region.

    'Augh, my God! what will it be like at all, at all, when we get there?' she whispered, looking up and smiling, yet half abashed at the same time by her own audacity.