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How Mary Came Home by Katharine Tynan

 

The Island people seldom marry outside the Island. They are passionately devoted to each other, but as a rule look coldly upon the stranger. Swarthy Spanish sailors put in sometimes, and fair-skinned, black-eyed Greeks, and broad-shouldered Norwegians, all as ripe for love as any other sailor, but that they should carry away an Island girl to their outlandish places over sea is a thing almost unheard of. The Island girls are courted by their own blue-jerseyed fisher-lads—and what a place for love-making, with the ravines and caves in the cliff-sides, and the deep glens in the heart of the Island, so lonely except for the lord's red deer and little fierce black cattle. Why, if one of those foreign sailors attempted love-making with an Island lass, just as likely as not a pair of little brown fists would rattle about his amazed ears; the girls there know how to defend their dignity.

But one spring there was a sensation little short of a scandal when it became known that Mary Cassidy, the handsomest girl of the Island, was keeping company with a Spanish sailor who had come into harbour on a Glasgow barque. The stage of keeping company was not long. So violent was the passion that flamed up between the two that there was no gainsaying it. Mary was the one girl in a family of five tall fishermen. Father and mother were dead—the father drowned in a wild night while trying to make the treacherous mouth of the inadequate harbour, the mother dead of her grief. Mary had known fathering and mothering both from the brothers. She was the youngest of them all, and their pride and glory.

She was tall and generously proportioned, with ropes of red gold hair round her small head, and her face had the colour of the sea-shell. In her large brown eyes, sleepily veiled by long lashes, smouldered a hidden fire: her step was proud and fearless, and she was as strong as a beautiful lithe young animal. The brothers brought her gay prints and woollens and rows of beads when they came home with the fishing fleet, and with these she adorned her beauty—a beauty so brilliant that it glittered of itself.

There was no use opposing her once she had fallen in love with Jacopo. He was a handsome, dark fellow, with insinuating manners, and a voice like a blackbird. When the two were together there was no one else in the world for them. He had flamed up with the fierceness of his southern nature: she with the heat of a heart slow to love, and once fired slow to go out.

When Jacopo had settled things with Father Tiernay and had gone on his last trip before he should come to make Mary his wife, the girl walked the Island like one transfigured. The light burned steadily in her deep eyes, her cheeks flamed scarlet, her lips were red as coral. She went about her household duties with her head in the air and her eyes far away. The brothers when they came home of an evening sat silent in a ring, for the grief was on them: but if the girl knew she did not seem to know. Of the five brothers not one had thought of marrying. What any one might do as soon as the golden thread that held them together was snapped no one could say; but they were grizzled or grizzling men, and had long ago been put down by the Island folk as confirmed bachelors.

Father Tiernay had talked with Jacopo about his religion, and had declared him an excellent son of Mother Church, so there was nothing against him on that ground. The captain of his ship gave him a good character, and Jacopo had been with him three seasons. He had a tidy little house near Greenock, and a bit of money saved. Yet the brothers were not satisfied. 'Why couldn't she have fancied a lad of the kindly neighbours?' grumbled William, the eldest. And the youngest, Patrick, answered in the same strain, 'Wasn't the Island good enough for her but she must go to foreign lands?' And then five melancholy heads shook in the twilight.

They had a cold, awkward, insular distrust and shyness of the Spaniard. They made no response to his professions of goodwill and brotherhood, poured out fluently in his yet difficult Scots-English. They noticed and commented afterwards upon his contemptuous shrug, when one feast night he was invited to join the family at its Rosary,—for they are devout people, the Islanders.

Yet, distrust or no distrust, the girl must go to him. He came back one summer day with a fine rig-out for his wedding, and a bonnet and cloak for the bride such as were never dreamt of in the Island. She was an impassioned bride, and as she came down the church with her husband, her eyes uplifted and shining like stars, she seemed rather to float like a tall flame than to walk like a mortal woman.

Five men watched her then with melancholy and patient faces. The five went with her to the boat on which she was to cross to the mainland to take the Glasgow steamer. As the little ferry plied away from the pier it was at her husband she looked, not at them and the Island, though it stood up purple and black, and she had well loved the rocks and glades of it, and though they had fostered her.

The five men went back to their lonely cottage and began to do for themselves. They were handy fellows, as good at frying a fish as catching it, and they were not minded to put a woman in Mary's place. They kept the cottage tidy enough, yet it was a dreary tidiness. The fire generally went out when it was no longer required for meals, and as the brothers came in one after the other, from smoking a pipe on the quay, they went to bed in the dark, or by the shaft of moonlight that came in through the window overlooking the old Abbey and its graves. They were always silent men, and now they grew more taciturn. Even when at first letters came from Mary full of her husband and her happiness, they spelt them out to themselves and did not take the neighbours into their confidence. And more and more they came to be regarded as 'oddities' by the Island people.

About a year after Mary's marriage there came a letter from Jacopo announcing that she was the mother of a son. That child formed a tremendous interest to his five uncles. They did not talk much about it, but a speech from one or another told what was in all their minds.

'The lad'll be fine and tall by this,' one would say. 'Ay,' the other would respond, 'he'll be maybe walking by now.' 'He'll have the looks of his mother,' suggested James. 'Ay: he was a fair child from the beginning,' Thomas would agree.

Seeing the child was so much in their minds it was strange none of them had ever seen it. At first after she was married Mary had been fond of pressing them to come to the Clyde, if it was only for a look at her. But little by little the invitations had dropped off and ceased. They had been shy of going in the early days. It was not that they feared the journey, for some of the brothers had fared much further afield than Scotland; but in their hearts, though they never complained, they remembered how she had not looked back on them as the ferry swung from the pier, and feared that they might be but half-welcome guests in the house of her husband.

At first Jacopo often wrote for his wife, but after a time this too ceased. Then the praises of him by degrees grew spasmodic. There were often two or three letters in which his name found no place. The brothers with the keenness of love noted this fact, though each of them pondered it long in his mind before one evening Patrick spoke of his fear, and then the others brought theirs out of its hiding-place.

Mary had been going on for four years married, when in a wild winter David and Tom were drowned. They were laid with many another drowned fisherman in the Abbey graveyard. Mary wrote the other brothers ill-spelt, tear-stained letters, which proved her heart had not grown cold to them; and the three brothers went on living as the five had done.

It was a bitter, bitter spring when Mary's letters ceased altogether. They had had a short letter from her early in January, and then no word afterwards. February went by gray and with showers of sleet: no word came. In the first week of March there came a great storm, with snow pelting on the furious wind. All the fishing boats were drawn high on the land, and the fishers sat in their cottages benumbed, despite the fires on the hearth, for the wind roared through doors and windows and often seemed minded to take up the little houses and smash them on the rocks as an angry child smashes a flimsy toy. No one went out of doors, and the Cassidys sat with their feet on the turf embers and smoked. The sky was lurid green all that March day, and in the little cottage there was hardly light for the men to see each other's brooding faces. If they spoke it was only to say, 'God betune us and all harm!' or, 'God help all poor sowls at say!' when the wind rattled with increasing fury the stout door and windows.

It was some time in the afternoon that William spoke out of his meditations. 'Boys,' he said, 'if the ferry goes to-morrow, and they'll be fain to put out, for there isn't much food on the Island, I'll start wid her in the name of God, and take the Glasga' boat. It's on my mind there's something wrong wid our Mary.'

The other two breathed a sigh of relief. 'The same was on my tongue,' said one and the other, and almost simultaneously both cried, 'Why should you go? Let me go.'

'Stay where yez are, boys!' said the other authoritatively, 'an' get what comfort yez can about the house. I'm thinkin' I'll be bringin' the girsha home.'

He gave no reason for this supposition, and they asked none. That night the storm subsided, and though the sea was churned white as wool, and no fishing boats would put out for days to come, the tiny steam ferry panted its way through the trough of waters to bring stores from the mainland. Will Cassidy was the only passenger, and he carried with him small provision for himself, but at the last moment Patrick had come running after him with a bundle of woollens.

'It'll be fine and cold travelling back,' he panted, 'so I run over to Clancy's (Clancy's was the village shop) and got a big shawl for her, an' a small one for the child. The things'll be no worse for your keeping them warm on the way over.'

But William did not keep them warm in his brother's sense. He hugged them under his big cotamor, and now and again he took them out and regarded them with interest. Once he said aloud, 'Well, to think of Patrick havin' the thought, the crathur'; and then put them hurriedly back because a big wave was just sousing over the deck.

The next evening he was in the streets of the unfriendly Scotch town that was covered with snow. The green sky of the day of the storm had fulfilled its prophecy and spilt its burden on the earth. As he passed on, inquiring his way from one or another, there were few passengers to enlighten him, and his footsteps fell with a muffled sound on the causeways. At last he came to where the houses grew thinner, and found the place he sought, a little cottage not far from the water's edge.

There was a light in the window, but when he had knocked no one came in answer. He knocked two or three times. Then he lifted the latch and went in. There was a woman sitting by the fireless grate. Her arms were round a child on her bosom, and a thin shawl about her shoulders trailed over the child's face. She did not turn round as he came in, but he saw it was Mary's figure. He had to speak to her before she looked up. Then she gave a faint cry and her frozen face relaxed. She held out the child to him with an imploring gesture: it reminded him of her running to him with a wound when she had fallen down in her babyhood. He took the child from her and felt it very heavy. The mother came to him gently and put her head on his rough coat. 'O William,' she cried, 'he's dead; my little Willie's dead and cold. It was at three o'clock the breath went out of him, and no one ever came since.'

He looked at the child then and saw that he was indeed dead. He put her back gently in her chair, and laid the child's little body on the bright patchwork quilt of the bed. He remembered that quilt: it was part of Mary's bridal gear. Then he came again to the mother and soothed her, with her bright head against his rough coat.

'Whisht, acushla,' he said, 'sure you're famished. Aisy now, till I make a bit of fire for you.'

The girl watched him with wide dry eyes of despair. He gathered the embers on the hearth and set a light to them. He lit a candle and extinguished the smoking lamp, which had apparently been burning all day. Then he went here and there gathering the materials for a meal. The kettle was soon boiling, and he made some tea and forced her to drink a cup. He was very glad of its warmth himself, for he was weary with long fasting. Afterwards he sat down beside her and asked for Jacopo.

'Him,' turning away her head, 'he's wid another woman.' She said no more, and William asked no more. Instead, he said gently, 'Well, acushla, you'll be putting together the few things you'll take with you. There's a cattle boat going at six in the mornin', an' we can get a passage by that.'

She looked up at him. 'But the child?' she said.

'He'll go wid us,' the man replied. 'He'll sleep sweeter on the Island than in this sorrowful town.'

'May God reward you, William,' she said. 'You're savin' more than you know. For if he'd come back I wouldn't answer for it that I wouldn't have kilt him as he slep'.'

The morning rose green and livid, with a sky full of snow though the world was covered with it. Now and again the snow drifted in their faces as they trudged through the streets before daybreak, and it came dryly pattering when they were out on the waste of green waters cleaving their way under the melancholy daylight. William had found a corner for the woman under shelter of the bridge, and there she sat through the hours with the dead child wrapped in her shawl, and the cold of it aching at her heart. The snow came on faster, and the deck passengers huddled in for shelter. 'God save you, honest woman,' said a ruddy-faced wife to her. 'Give me the child, and move yourself about a bit. You'll be fair frozen before we're half way across.' Mary shook her head with a gesture that somehow disarmed the kind woman's wrath at the rejection of her overtures. 'That crature looks to me,' she said to her husband, 'fair dazed wid the sorrow. Maybe it's the husband of her the crature's after buryin'.' There were a great many curious glances at Mary in her corner, but no one else had the temerity to offer her help.

William brought her a cup of tea at mid-day, which she drank eagerly, still holding the child with one arm, but she pushed away the food he offered with loathing.

In the evening they disembarked, and from a pier swept by the north wind were huddled into a train, ill lit and cold as the grave. Mary crouched into a corner with her face bent over the dead child. 'A quiet sleeper, ma'am,' said a cheerful sea-faring man. Mary looked at him with lack-lustre eyes and turned away her head.

Presently she began to sing, a quaint old Island lullaby, which rang weird and melancholy. William looked at her in alarm, but said nothing, and the other passengers watched her curiously, half in fear. She lifted her child from her knee to her breast, and held it there clasped a moment. 'I can't warm him,' she said, looking helplessly at all the wondering faces. 'The cold's on him and on me, and I doubt we'll ever be warm again.'

Presently they drew up at a bleak way-side station for the ferry, and the brother and sister without a word stepped out in the night and the snow. The man did not offer to carry the child. He knew it was no use. But he put a strong arm round the woman and her burden, where the snow was heaviest, and the wind from the sea blew like a hurricane.

They were the only passengers by the ferry, and neither the ferryman nor his mate knew Mary Cassidy, with the shawl drawn over her eyes. But as they stepped ashore and touched the familiar rock on which she and hers for many a forgotten generation had been born and cradled, the piteous frozen madness melted away from her face. She turned to her brother—

'Tis the sad home-coming,' she said, 'but I've brought back all I prized.' She snatched the ring from her finger suddenly and hurled it out in the tossing waters, on which even in the dark they could see the foam-crests. 'Now I'm Mary Cassidy again,' she said, 'and the woman that left you is dead.' She lifted her shawl and kissed the little dead face under it. 'You've no father, avic,' she said passionately. 'You're mine, only mine. Never a man has any right in you at all, but only Mary Cassidy.'

 
 
 

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