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Mauryeen by Katharine Tynan

 

Against Con Daly's little girl there was never a word spoken in the Island. Con had been well liked, God rest his soul!—but the man was drowned nigh upon twenty years ago. There was some old tragic tale about it, how he had volunteered to swim with a rope round his waist to a ship breaking up a few yards from the rocks in a sea that a gannet could scarcely live upon. He had pushed aside the men who remonstrated with him, turning on them a face ghastly in the moonlight. 'Stand aside, men,' he cried, 'and if I fail, see to the girsha!' He was the strongest man in all the Island, and as much at home in the water as a porpoise. They saw his sleek head now and again flung out of the trough of the waves, and his huge shoulders labouring against the weight of the storm. Then suddenly the rope they were holding fell slack in their hands,—they said afterwards it had snapped on a jagged razor of rock,—and the man disappeared. A day or two later his battered and bruised body was flung up on the bathing strand, where in summer the city ladies take their dip in the sea. He was buried with some of the drowned sailors he had tried to rescue, and an iron cross put at his head by the fishermen. But for a long time there was a talk that the man had gone to meet his death gladly, had for some reason or another preferred death to life; but people were never quite sure if there was anything in it.

The Islanders had looked askance at Ellen Daly, Con's wife, before that, though to her husband she was the apple of his eye. She had been a domestic servant on the mainland when Con Daly met and married her, and she had never seemed to have any friends. She had been handsome in her day, at least so some people thought, but there were women on the Island who said they never could abide her, with her pale face and sneering smile, and her eyes that turned green as a cat's when she was angry. However, she never tried to ingratiate herself with the women: if the men admired her it was as much as she asked. When she liked she could be fascinating enough. She bewitched Mrs. Wilkinson, the housekeeper at the Hall, into taking her on whenever his Lordship filled the house with gentlemen and an extra hand was needed. She was deft and clever, and could be insinuating when it served her purpose. But the friendship of the Island women she had never desired, and when her husband was drowned there was not a fisher-wife to go and sit with her in the desolate house. As the years went by her good looks went with them. She yellowed, and her malevolent eyes took on red rims round their greenness; while her dry lips, parted over her snarling teeth, were more ill than they had been when they were ripe and ruddy.

The neighbours were kind by stealth to Con's girsha. Those were long days of her childhood when her mother was at work in the Hall, and the child was locked in the empty cottage; but many was the kind word through the window, from the women as they passed up and down, and now and again a hot griddle-cake, or some little dainty of the kind, was passed through to the child as she sat so dull and lonely on her little creepy stool.

Poor little Mauryeen! She was a child with social instincts, and often, often she used to wonder in those lonely hours why she might not be out with the other children, playing at shop in the crevices of the rocks, or wading for cockles, or dancing round in a ring to the sing-song of 'Green Gravel,' or playing at 'High Gates.' Her mother coldly discouraged any friendship with the children of her foes; and little Mauryeen grew up a silent child, with something more delicate and refined about her than the other children,—with somehow the air of a little lady.

But Mauryeen was not her mother's child to be without a will of her own. As she grew from childhood to girlhood she began to assert herself, and though her mother tried hard to break her spirit she did not succeed. After a time she seemed to realise that here was something she had not counted upon, and to submit, since she could not hope to fight it. All the same she hated the girl whom she could not rule, hated her so furiously that the glitter of her eyes as she looked at her from the chimney-corner was oftentimes murderous. For, little by little Mauryeen grew to be friends with all the fishing village.

Even though she asserted herself the girl did her duty bravely and humbly. Any mother of them all would have been proud to own Mauryeen. When her mother had employment at the Hall Mauryeen took care of the house, and having cleaned and tidied to her heart's content, sat in the sun at her knitting till Ellen Daly came home to find a comfortable meal prepared for her. The woman's one good quality was that she had always been a good housewife, and the girl took after her. Then when her mother was at home Mauryeen went out sewing to the houses of the few gentry who lived on the hill; and the house was well kept and comfortable, though an unnatural hatred sat beside the hearth.

The neighbours pitied and praised Mauryeen all the more. They used to wonder how long it would last, the silent feud between mother and daughter, especially since Mauryeen was so capable and clever that she might for the asking join even Mrs. Wilkinson's chosen band of handmaidens.

The girl meanwhile throve as happily as though she lived in the very sunshine of love rather than in this malignant atmosphere. She saw little of her mother. The hours when they were under one roof were few; and across the threshold she found abundant kindness and praise. Mauryeen was small and graceful, with the olive-tinted fairness which had been her mother's in her best days. But Mauryeen's blue eyes were kindly and her lips smiled, and her soft voice was gentle; she had a pretty way of decking herself which the fisher-girls could never come by. Mauryeen in a pink cotton frock, with a spray of brown seaweed in her belt, might have passed for one of the young ladies who visited at the Hall. If the other girls copied her pretty tricks of decoration they carried the tame air of the mere copyist. But no one grudged Mauryeen her charm; she was so kind and gentle, and she had always the tragedy of that ghastly old mother of hers to stir pity for her. Then too she always seemed so anxious that the other girls should look well, and so willing to take trouble to this end, that no one could envy her her own prettiness.

There came a time when a young man of the Island, Randal Burke by name, declared to Mauryeen that her voice could coax the birds off the trees, and that her head when she listened was like the prettiest bird's head, all covered with golden feathers. She had indeed a very pretty way of listening, with her head on one side and her eyes bright and attentive. Mauryeen was used to compliments, and could usually hold her own in a bit of light love-making; but it was remarkable that at this speech of Randal Burke's she went pale. She always turned pale when another girl would have blushed.

Mauryeen's was a sudden and rapid wooing. The young fellow was fairly independent, possessing as he did a little bit of land with his cottage, as well as a boat. His mother was one of the most prosperous women of the Island, and had been in days gone by Ellen Daly's bitterest enemy. But for all that she welcomed Mauryeen tenderly as a daughter.

There was a terrible to-do when Mauryeen told her mother of her intentions. She turned so livid that Mauryeen for all her brave heart was frightened, and faltered. The old woman choked and gasped with the whirlwind of passion that possessed her. As soon as she could speak she hissed out:—

'The day you marry him I curse you, and him, your house, your marriage, and every child born of you.'

Mauryeen's anger rose and shook her too like a whirlwind, but it drove out fear.

'And if you do, you wicked woman,' she said, 'it's not me it'll harm. Do you think God will listen to the like of you or let harm befall me and mine because of your curse?'

For a day or two after Mauryeen's defiance her mother brooded in quietness, only now and again turning on her daughter those terrible green eyes. No word passed between the two, and meanwhile Randal Burke was hastening the preparations for the marriage by every means in his power. Father Tiernay had 'called' them at the mass three Sunday mornings. The priest was greatly pleased with the marriage. Mauryeen was a pet lamb of his flock, and he deeply disliked and distrusted her mother.

It was the feast day of the year on the Island, a beautiful bright sunny June day. On a plateau the men played at the hurley and putting the stone; and there was a tug of war for married men and single, and after that for the women, amid much jollity and laughter. Above the plateau the hill sloped, and that long sunny slope was the place from which the girls and women looked on at the prowess of their male kind. That day out of all the year there was a general picnic on the hill, and meals were eaten and the long day spent out of doors, till the dews came on the grass.

Now one of the events was a rowing contest, and the course was right under the hill-slope. Father Tiernay every year gave a money prize for the winner, and the distinction in itself was ardently coveted. Randal Burke was rowing against another young fisherman, and it was not easy to forecast the winner, both men were so strong, so practised, and so eager in the contest.

The race had begun, and the people on the hillside were standing up in their excitement watching the boats, which were nearly dead level. Mauryeen stood by Randal's mother, with one hand thrust childishly within her arm, and the other shading her eyes from the bright sun. Suddenly the people were startled by the sound of running feet, and all looking in one direction they saw Mauryeen's mother coming without bonnet or cloak, her face working with passion and her hands clenched. The people fell back before her. She had an evil reputation, and for a minute or two they thought she had gone mad. Mauryeen, who did not fall back with the others, found herself standing in the centre of an empty space, while her mother panted before her, struggling for words. All the women-folk behind pressed together and craned over each other's shoulders, half alarmed and half curious.

At last the woman found her breath. She pointed a yellow finger at the girl, who stood before her with her head proudly lifted, and her eyes amazed but fearless.

'Look at her,' shrieked the beldame, 'all of you, and you, Kate Burke, that boasts your family's the oldest on the Island. Look well at her! Och, the good ould ancient blood! Look at her, for her blood's ancienter still. Do you see anything of Con Daly in her?'

The girl looked round with a forlorn sense of being held up to public scorn, but the women were huddling together, and the fear kept any one from coming to stand by her side.

'Look at her,' again shrieked the hoarse voice. 'D'yez know where she gets her pride and the courage to dare me? She gets it from her father, th' ould lord. Con Daly had never act nor part in her.'

A scream, the like of which the Island had never heard, broke from Mauryeen's lips. It was such a cry as if body and soul were tearing asunder. With that scream she flung her arms above her head. The little group, closing round her awe-stricken, looked to see her fall face downward to the ground. But with a wild movement of her arms, as if she swept the whole world out of her path, she fled down the hill towards the village. Ellen Daly had vanished. No one had seen her go. And down in the dancing bay at their feet Randal Burke proudly shot ahead of his opponent and won the race.

The girl meanwhile had fled on and on, with only the blind instinct to hide her disgrace. The village was empty of all but the sick and the bed-ridden. There was not an eye on Mauryeen Daly as she fled by the open doors. With a mechanical instinct she turned in at the door of her mother's house. The cool darkness of it after the glare outside was grateful to her. She closed the door and barred it. Then she turned into a room off the kitchen, her own little room, where there was a picture of the Mother of Sorrows with seven swords through her heart, and dropped on the floor before the picture with an inarticulate moaning.

She lay there half unconscious, and only feeling her misery dumbly. On the wall hung her blue cashmere dress, in which she was to have been married a day or two later. On the chest of drawers was a box containing the little wreath and veil her mother-in-law had presented her with. But she saw none of these things, with her mouth and eyes against the floor.

She came back to life presently, hearing her name called. The voice had called many times before she heard it. Now it was imperative, almost sharp in its eagerness. 'Open, acushla, open, or I burst the door.' It was Randal's voice; and she answered it, advancing a step or two, groping with outstretched hands, and a wild look of fear in her dilated eyes. Then she heard the door straining and creaking, and a man panting, striving outside. In a little while, almost before she had time to stand clear of it, the door rattled on the floor, and her lover leapt into the cabin.

She put out her hands to fence him off, swaying blindly towards the wall. He sprang to her with a murmur of pity, and was just in time to catch her as her senses left her, and she lay a limp and helpless thing in his arms.

Father Tiernay was standing at his window gazing over a surpassingly fair plain of sea, dotted with silver green islands. He was glad the people had so fine a day for their sports. In the afternoon he would be with them to distribute the prizes and congratulate the winners, and to add to the general enjoyment by his presence; but this morning he was alone, except for his deaf old housekeeper, and Jim the sacristan, who was too dignified to be out on the Fair Hill with the others. The priest's look of perplexity deepened as he watched some one climbing the steep hill to his house. 'It looks like Cody's ghost carrying his wife's body,' he muttered to himself. The figure or figures came nearer. At last his Reverence took in what he saw, and made but one or two steps to the hall door. 'Come in here,' he said, asking no questions, like a practical man; and indeed for a few minutes the young fisherman was incapable of answering any. It was not until the priest had forced some brandy between the girl's lips, when they had laid her on a sofa, and her breath came fluttering back, that Father Tiernay drew the lover aside into the window recess and learnt in a few words what had happened.

'She's so proud, my little girl,' pleaded the lover. 'She won't live under the shame of it unless your Reverence 'ud help us out of it. Couldn't your Reverence say the words over us? We've been called three times, and I've the ring in my pocket. Oh, 'twas well that unnatural woman calculated her time when our happiness was at the full. Couldn't your Reverence do it for us?' he said again in a wheedling tone.

His Reverence looked at him thoughtfully. Then he drew out his watch. 'Yes,' he said, 'there's time enough, and I think you're right, my lad. Just step outside while I speak to her, for I see she's coming to.'

The young man whispered: 'God bless you, Father! If I waited till to-morrow I'd never put the ring on her. I know the pride of her.' And then he went out obediently.

No one knew how Father Tiernay persuaded Mauryeen. But a little while later a very pale bride stood up at the altar of Columb Island Chapel, and was married, with Father Tiernay's housekeeper and the sacristan for witnesses.

When they were married Father Tiernay said to the bridegroom: 'Take her home by the back road. You won't meet a soul, and I'll tell the people when I join them what has been done. But above all, impress on her that the story is a wicked lie.'

So Mauryeen went home with her husband to his little cottage on the cliffs. And in the afternoon, when Father Tiernay came to distribute the prizes and to merry-make with his people, he raised his hand for silence and addressed them.

'Children,' he said, 'I hear there has been a grave scandal among you, and a great sin committed before you this day. The wicked sought to crush the innocent, as I believe, by bearing false witness, but the wicked has not triumphed. A few hours ago I made Randal Burke and Mauryeen Daly man and wife. And I give you solemn warning that the one who gives ear and belief to the story of the miserable woman who dishonoured herself to crush her innocent flesh and blood, shares in that unnatural guilt.'

So after a time Mauryeen crept back to the sunshine, and let herself be persuaded that her mother was mad. No one on the Island saw Ellen Daly again; they said she had crossed to the mainland by the afternoon ferry. She never came back, and there were some in the Island who believed she had sold her soul to the devil, and that he had claimed her fulfilment of the compact. But Mauryeen is an honest man's wife, and whatever people may conjecture in their inmost hearts as to the truth or falsity of her mother's tale, they say nothing, for did not Father Tiernay declare such gossip to be a sin? But for all that Mauryeen's ways are finer and gentler than those of any woman in the Island.

 
 
 

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