When the family were collected together, space, as may be guessed, was at a premium since even upon the floor they could hardly all sit down at the same time. There was, however, a sort of ledge, covered with straw, about three feet from the ground, upon which four of the five children slept, and where, when food was being distributed, all that were old enough to sit alone were to be seen perched in a row, with tucked-up legs and open mouths, like a brood of half-fledged turkeys. At other times they gathered chiefly upon the doorstep, which, in all Irish cabins, is the coveted place, and only ceases to be so in exceptionally cold weather, or after actual darkness has set in.
There was no land belonging to the cabin beyond a strip of stony potato-ground, and Peter, or Pete, Durane was forced therefore to earn what he could as day-labourer to his luckier neighbours. Not much employment was given, as may be imagined, on Inishmaan, and had there been Pete would hardly have been able to profit by it. He was a thin dried-up little man, looking old already, though he was not yet forty, with soft appealing eyes and a helpless, vacillating manner. His wife Rose, or Rosha, on the contrary, though in reality a year or two older than himself, was a fine-looking woman still, with hard red cheeks and round black eyes, who had only accepted him, as she often loudly asserted, for the sake of charity, and to hinder the creature from throwing himself into the sea.
Poor Pete had certainly not been regarded as the pearl of bachelors, and had had to seek far and ask often before finding anyone willing to accept him. He was a well-meaning, harmless little man, full of the best intentions, and incapable of hurting a fly. Unfortunately for himself he bore a poor reputation in the somewhat important matter of honesty, and it was this that had made Grania think of him in connection with the stolen turf.
About a year before there had been a scandal about some straw which had been missed by one of the neighbours, and which was finally traced to Pete's door, and although the amount taken had been a trifle, still in so small and so poverty-stricken a community as Inishmaan small things, it will be understood, are readily missed. No steps had been taken to prosecute the culprit—indeed, the ties of kindred are so closely woven and interwoven all over the island that the law is rarely resorted to. The straw had been duly returned to the owner's door early one morning, and it was one of the many jokes against Pete Durane that he had been soundly thrashed by his wife for the theft—possibly because of the detection of it.
When Grania entered, the children were still eating their midday meal, an old table having been pushed against their ledge for the purpose—a very old table, almost shapeless from years of ill-usage, but still solid, and the chief article of furniture in the house. Rosha was busily ladling out a fresh supply of potatoes from the big black pot, laying them down in heaps upon the table in sizes varying according to the age, or possibly the merits, of the recipient. They were not allowed to get cold, the children snatching them up and beginning to eat them almost before they were out of the pot.
What with the all but total absence of glass in the paper-patched windows, and what with the smouldering eddies of turf-smoke which rolled overhead like some dull domestic cloud, it was at first so dark that Grania could see nothing except the piles of potatoes and the children, or rather the children's hands, which, being fitfully lit by the fire, kept darting into the light and out again, like things endowed with some odd galvanic existence of their own. After awhile, as her eyes got more accustomed to the atmosphere, she made out that besides the mistress of the house, there were two other women sitting there, one of them an aunt of Rosha's from the opposite side of the island, the other our previous acquaintance, Peggy Dowd, who had dropped in as usual about meal time.
No sooner was that meal snatched up and swallowed down than the children rushed out of doors again in a body, tumbling one over the other as they did so, the eldest girl clutching up her mother's flannel petticoat as she went. A spare petticoat—one, that is to say, not invariably worn upon the person of the mistress of the house—is a highly important article in an Irish cabin, and fulfils more functions than could be guessed at first sight. It is a quilt by night, a shawl by day, a head-gear, an umbrella for an entire brood of children to run out under in the rain—nay, the man of the house himself will often not disdain to take a turn of it, especially on occasions which do not bring him too directly into the light of publicity. This last, by the way, was a privilege which poor Pete Durane had never dared to claim.
Even after the children had been got rid of Grania felt it impossible for her to enter upon the subject of her visit—a delicate one in any case—while there were strangers present. Accordingly she did not remain in the cabin many minutes, contenting herself with begging Rosha to ask Pete to come over and speak to her that evening as soon as his day's work was finished.