Part II

April

Chapter IX

THE TWO listeners remained silent a minute after the tale had ended. Peggy Dowd filled her pipe and puffed at it solemnly, with the air of one who has fulfilled a social duty and sustained a widely- known reputation. Suddenly Mrs. Durane, glancing towards the door, uttered an ejaculation of annoyance.

        'My conscience! if there is not that Pete Durane! God help the world, but he's back early from his work this day!'

        Almost before she had finished the words the little man came suddenly round the door-way into the cabin, hardly finding room to enter his own house owing to the three women, two of them in their big woollen cloaks, who already filled it to the very walls. His face wore a deprecating smile, which hardly ever left it, and which was the more noticeable from the absence of most of his front teeth. His hair, unlike that of most Irishmen of his rank, was very thin, so that he had the effect of being almost bald, and this with his short stature, bent back, and hesitating air, gave a general look of feebleness and ineffectiveness to his whole aspect. A poor pittiogue his wife called him, and as he stood there her two friends mentally endorsed the description.

    'Well now, well now, is this yourselves? Bless me, ladies, but 'tis the proud man I am to see you in my poor house,' he exclaimed as he entered. 'Yes, indeed, Mrs. O'Flanagan, ma'am! and how is that good man your husband? and your fine girl, too? But it is a sight to see her coming up the road, so it is!'

    'Och! Pete Durane, get along then, with your fine speeches,' said his wife irritably. 'What a murrain brings you back at this time of day? Is it to torment me before you need you're wanting?'

    'Arrah, don't be speaking to him like that, Rosha Durane!' said the aunt from the other side of the island, with a short derisive laugh. 'I tell you, Pete, there has been a very fine girl asking for you yourself, this day, so there has. Och, but a fine girl, as fine as any in Inishmaan. Saints alive! but 'twas herself was disappointed not to find you within. "Will he come to see me this evening, do you think, Mrs. Durane?" says she, putting her head on one side. "'Tis the unfortunate colleen I am to miss him," says she. So you may be the proud man, Pete Durane, then you may!'

    Poor Pete's face got as red as his wife's petticoat. His susceptibility was one of the many standing jokes upon Inishmaan, where jokes were rare, and once started lasted long. It was quite true. By one of those humorous freaks of which nature is fond, while his handsome stalwart contemporaries were all but invulnerable in this respect, the poor little pittiogue was known to be intensely susceptible to the tender passion. It had made him a slave all his life to his wife Rosha, and even now, after years of consistent ill-usage on her part, he was still slavishly devoted to her, and took her buffets, physical no less than verbal, with all the meekness of an attached and well-broken-in house-dog.

    'Ugh! ugh! 'tis going I must be,' old Peggy Dowd said suddenly, struggling to rise from her low seat. 'Will you put the cloak around me, Mrs. Durane, ma'am, if you please. Ugh ! ugh! 'Tis myself is scarce fit' to walk back alone, so I am not.'

    'Will I send the girl Juggy Kelly with you to help you up the hill? Yes, indeed, but it is a great help, so it is. You must make her go behind you and push—push hard. Trouble? Och! what are the young people for if not to be of some good to those that's better and older than themselves? But where is she, that girl Juggy Kelly ? It is always out of the way she is when she is wanted. Run, Pete, run out down the road and look for her. Quick, man, don't be standing there like a stuck pig over against the door, taking up all the light.'

    Then, as the obedient Pete flew off hatless down the path—'It is not known the trouble I have had with that girl!' Mrs. Durane continued, turning for sympathy to her friends. 'Would you believe it, Mrs. O'Flanagan, ma'am, 'tis sleeping with the chickens now she complains of! There is not a morning of her life but she comes to me with her face all scratched, crying and saying she'll not stop in it. "Then don't," says I; "go sleep with the crows if you like, since the chickens won't serve you." That is what I say; yes, indeed! such impudence!'

    'Och! there is no satisfying the young people, do what you will for them these times,' Mrs. O'Flanagan replied sympathetically. 'Did you hear of young Macdara Kilbride—Manus Kilbride's eldest son, him that's just back from America?—it is not into his own father and mother's house he will go almost, so it is not. "Phew! phew!" says he; "why, what a lot of smoke!" And so there is some smoke, and why would there not be? It is a very good house, Mary Kilbride's house is, there is no better house in all Inishmaan. It is true it is built on a bit of a slope, and the door is at the top, so that the rain comes into it in wet weather; God He sends the rain, and it is a very bad season for Inishmaan when He does not send enough—oh yes, a very bad season, everyone knows that. But Macdara Kilbride is just so. The feet do be sticking in the floor of the house, he says, every time he crosses it. It is a soft floor, there is no denying that, and the chimney never was a good one to draw, being fallen in a good deal at the top, and the stones off. But, Man Above! does he think his father can be going into Galway every day in the week for more bricks? Besides, it is a good house; a very good house is Mary Kilbride's.'

    'Ugh! ugh! what did I tell you just now? 'Tis the same everywhere. Young people they are the same, all the same; there is no good in them at all, so there is not!' Peggy Dowd again spat vigorously into the fire to emphasise her disgust, then hitched her big cloak about her shoulders, and began preparing with many groans and wheezing sighs to depart without the aid of her proffered assistant.

    Just as she had hobbled across to the doorway it was again filled by a figure, and the elder Durane, Pete's father, came in.

    He was a curious contrast to his insignificant-looking little son. A tall, stately old man, with that peculiarly well-bred air not unfrequently still to be seen amongst the elder Irish peasants. His white hair was very thick, and hung over his forehead and around his hat in a dense silky thatch. His eyes were drooping and tired-looking, and his whole air that of a man who has done his work in the world, and asks for nothing now but to be left in peace. By an arrangement common enough in the west of Ireland, when the parent is old, and the son or sons married, he had surrendered all ownership in the house and all rights of possession, with a few trifling exceptions. The single stuffed chair, for instance, was his, so was the one drinking-glass, and an old two-handled black oak mether bound with brass, a relic this of unknown antiquity: These and a few similar articles of personal use were his own private property, and to these he clung punctiliously, and in case of a dispute would doubtless have defended them to the death.

    On the whole his daughter-in-law and he got on better than might have been expected. Rosha, to tell truth, was rather in awe of her father-in-law. His old world politeness, combined with a certain power he occasionally showed of being uncomfortably caustic if provoked, were not without effect upon the rough-tongued, coarse-natured woman. In the endless domestic storms between her and her husband—storms, it must be said, which raged almost exclusively on one side—old Durane never took his son's part, though often appealed to by that much-bullied person to do so. On the other hand he had a way of dreamily watching Rosha as she raged about the cabin which had more effect upon the virago than might have been expected from so very negative a form of attack. He now stood perfectly silent upon the threshold, and having politely removed his hat, bent his white head first to one and then to the other of the visitors, leaning as he did so upon the big black stick which he held in his hand. He was still in the same attitude when his son Pete returned hastily, without the girl he had been sent for, but dragging two of the children after him by the hand.

    'Augh, then, Pete Durane, will you never get the sense?' his wife exclaimed furiously. 'Who bade you bring back the children, and they sent out on purpose? Pulling then' up the rocks, too, like that, and Patsy smoking red with the heat this minute, the creature'—passing her hand over her offspring's forehead, and turning the palm round to the company to prove her assertion. 'Auch, Mr. Durane, sir, but it is the fool you have for a son, God love you! yes, indeed, the very biggest fool on all Inishmaan, and it was myself was the next biggest ever to go and marry him, so I was, God knows.'

    The elder Durane looked at his son, and then at his daughter-in-law, an air of vague disturbance beginning to cloud his face, but he said nothing. Then, equally silently, his eyes began to wander slowly round the cabin, as if he were calculating the probabilities of any food being forthcoming. Not seeing signs of anything of the sort at present, he again lifted his hat with the same air of dreamy civility, and backing cautiously out of the doorway, beyond which he had not yet ventured, retraced his steps a little way down the pathway, until he had reached a spot where the planes of rock had got accidentally worn away into the likeness of a sort of roughly-hewn arm-chair. Here he seated himself, his legs stretched out in front of him, his eyes beginning, evidently from long habit, to seek out one particular spot in the far-reaching, dull-tinted horizon. Gradually as he did so the serenity, disturbed by Rosha's appeal and by the general sense of disturbance which was apt to surround that vigorous woman, returned to his face, a look of reminiscence, undefined but on the whole pleasurable, settling down upon his handsome weather-beaten old features.

    The aunt from the other side of the island had nearly reached her own home again, and even Peggy Dowd had long disappeared, wheezing and grunting up the craggy pathway, before he ventured to leave his arm-chair and contemplative gaze at the horizon, and once more seek out the cabin and that atmosphere of storm which seemed to hang about it as closely and almost as persistently as its veil of peat smoke.