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A Rich Woman by Katharine Tynan

 

Margret Laffan was something of a mystery to the Island people. Long ago in comparative youth she had disappeared for a half-dozen years. Then she had turned up one day in a coarse dress of blue and white check, which looked suspiciously like workhouse or asylum garb, and had greeted such of the neighbours as she knew with a nod, for all the world as if she had seen them yesterday. It happened that the henwife at the Hall had been buried a day or two earlier, and when Margret came asking a place from Mrs. Wilkinson, the lord's housekeeper, the position was yet unfilled and Margret got it.

Not every one would have cared for the post. Only a misanthropic person indeed would have been satisfied with it. The henwife's cottage and the poultry settlement might have been many miles from a human habitation, so lonely were they. They were in a glen of red sandstone, and half the wood lay between them and the Hall. The great red walls stood so high round the glen that you could not even hear the sea calling. As for the village, it was a long way below. You had to go down a steep path from the glen before you came to an open space, where you could see the reek of the chimneys under you. Every morning Margret brought the eggs and the trussed chickens to the Hall. But no one disturbed her solitude, except when the deer, or the wild little red cattle came gazing curiously through the netting at Margret and her charges. There, for twenty-seven years, Margret lived with no company but the fowl. On Sundays and holidays she went to mass to the Island Chapel, but gave no encouragement to those who would have gone a step of the road home with her. The Island women used to wonder how she could bear the loneliness.—'Why, God be betune us and harm!' they often said, 'Sure the crathur might be robbed and murdhered any night of the year and no wan the wiser.' And so she might, if the Island possessed robbers and murderers in its midst. But it is a primitively innocent little community, which sleeps with open doors as often as not, and there is nothing to tempt marauders or even beggars to migrate there.

By and by a feeling got about that Margret must be saving money. Her wage as a henwife was no great thing, but then, as they said, 'she looked as if she lived on the smell of an oil-rag,' and there was plenty of food to be had in the Hall kitchen, where Margret waited with her eggs and fowl every morning. Certainly her clothes, though decent, were worn well-nigh threadbare. But the feelers that the neighbours sent out towards Margret met with no solid assurance. Grim and taciturn, Margret kept her own counsel, and was like enough to keep it till the day of her death.

Jack Laffan, Margret's brother, is the village carpenter, a sociable poor man, not the least bit in the world like his sister. Jack is rather fond of idling over a glass with his cronies in the public-house, but, as he is well under Mrs. Jack's thumb, the habit is not likely to grow on him inconveniently. There are four daughters and a son, a lad of fifteen or thereabouts. Two of the daughters are domestic servants out in the big world, and are reported to wear streamers to their caps and fine lace aprons every day. Another is handmaiden to Miss Bell at the post office, and knows the contents of all the letters, except Father Tiernay's, before the people they belong to. Fanny is at home with her father and mother, and is supposed to be too fond of fal-lals, pinchbeck brooches and cheap ribbons, which come to her from her sisters out in the world. She often talks of emigration, and is not sought after by the young men of the Island, who regard her as a 'vain paycocky thing.'

Mrs. Jack has the reputation of being a hard, managing woman. There was never much love lost between her and Margret, and when the latter came back from her six years' absence on the mainland, Mrs. Jack's were perhaps the most ill-natured surmises as to the reasons for Margret's silence and the meaning of that queer checked garb.

For a quarter of a century Margret lived among her fowl, untroubled by her kin. Then the talk about the money grew from little beginnings like a snowball. It fired Mrs. Jack with a curious excitement, for she was an ignorant woman and ready to believe any extravagant story. She amazed Jack by putting the blame of their long ignoring of Margret upon his shoulders entirely, and when he stared at her, dumb-founded, she seized and shook him till his teeth rattled. 'You great stupid omadhaun!' she hissed between the shakes, 'that couldn't have the nature in you to see to your own sister, an' she a lone woman!'

That very day Jack went off stupidly to try to bridge over with Margret the gulf of nearly thirty years. He got very little help from his sister. She watched him with what seemed like grim enjoyment while he wriggled miserably on the edge of his chair and tried to talk naturally. At length he jerked out his wife's invitation to have a bit of dinner with them on the coming Sunday, which Margret accepted without showing any pleasure, and then he bolted.

Margret came to dinner on the Sunday, and was well entertained with a fat chicken and a bit of bacon, for the Laffans were well-to-do people. She thoroughly enjoyed her dinner, though she spoke little and that little monosyllabic; but Margret was taciturn even as a girl, and her solitary habit for years seemed to have made speech more difficult for her. Mrs. Jack heaped her plate with great heartiness and made quite an honoured guest of her. But outside enjoying the dinner Margret did not seem to respond. Young Jack was brought forward to display his accomplishments, which he did in the most hang-dog fashion. The cleverness and good-looks and goodness of the girls were expatiated upon, but Margret gave no sign of interest. Once Fanny caught her looking at her with a queer saturnine glance, that made her feel all at once hot and uncomfortable, though she had felt pretty secure of her smartness before that. Margret's reception of Mrs. Jack's overtures did not satisfy that enterprising lady. When she had departed Mrs. Jack put her down as 'a flinty-hearted ould maid.' 'Her sort,' she declared, 'is ever an' always sour an' bitther to them the Lord blesses wid a family.' But all the same it became a regular thing for Margret to eat her Sunday dinner with the Laffans, and Mrs. Jack discovered after a time that the good dinners were putting a skin and roundness on Margret that might give her a new lease of life—perhaps a not quite desirable result.

The neighbours looked on at Mrs. Jack's 'antics' with something little short of scandal. They met by twos and threes to talk over it, and came to the conclusion that Mrs. Jack had no shame at all, at all, in her pursuit of the old woman's money. Truth to tell, there was scarcely a woman in the Island but thought she had as good a right to Margret's money as her newly-attentive kinsfolk. Mrs. Devine and Mrs. Cahill might agree in the morning, with many shakings of the head, that 'Liza Laffan's avarice and greed were beyond measure loathsome. Yet neither seemed pleased to see the other a little later in the day, when Mrs. Cahill climbing the hill with a full basket met Mrs. Devine descending with an empty one.

For all of a sudden a pilgrimage to Margret's cottage in the Red Glen became the recognised thing. It was surprising how old childish friendships and the most distant ties of kindred were furbished up and brought into the light of day. The grass in the lane to the glen became trampled to a regular track. If the women themselves did not come panting up the hill they sent the little girsha, or wee Tommy or Larry, with a little fish, or a griddle cake, or a few fresh greens for Margret. The men of the Island were somewhat scornful of these proceedings on the part of their dames; but as a rule the Island wives hold their own and do pretty well as they will. All this friendship for Margret created curious divisions and many enmities.

Margret, indeed, throve on all the good things, but whether any one person was in her favour more than another it would be impossible to say. Margret got up a way of thanking all alike in a honeyed voice that had a queer sound of mockery in it, and after a time some of the more independent spirits dropped out of the chase, 'pitching,' as they expressed it, 'her ould money to the divil.' Mrs. Jack was fairly confident all the time that if any one on the Island got Margret's nest-egg it would be herself, but she had a misgiving which she imparted to her husband that the whole might go to Father Tiernay for charities. Any attempt at getting inside the shell which hid Margret's heart from the world her sister-in-law had long given up. She had also given up trying to interest Margret in 'the childher,' or bidding young Jack be on his best behaviour before the Sunday guest. The young folk didn't like the derision in Margret's pale eyes, and kept out of her way as much as possible, since they feared their mother too much to flout her openly, as they were often tempted to do.

Two or three years had passed before Margret showed signs of failing. Then at the end of one very cold winter people noticed that she grew feebler. She was away from mass one or two Sundays, and then one Sunday she reappeared walking with the aid of a stick and looking plainly ill and weak. After mass she had a private talk with Father Tiernay at the presbytery; and then went slowly down to Jack's house for the usual dinner. Both Jack and Mrs. Jack saw her home in the afternoon, and a hard task the plucky old woman found it, for all their assistance, to get back to her cottage up the steep hill. When they had reached the top she paused for a rest. Then she said quietly, 'I'm thinkin' I'll make no more journeys to the Chapel. Father Tiernay'll have to be coming to me instead.'

'Tut, tut, woman dear,' said Mrs. Jack, with two hard red spots coming into her cheeks, 'we'll be seein' you about finely when the weather gets milder.' And then she insinuated in a wheedling voice something about Margret's affairs being settled.

Margret looked up at her with a queer mirthfulness in her glance. 'Sure what wud a poor ould woman like me have to settle? Sure that's what they say when a sthrong-farmer takes to dyin'.'

Mrs. Jack was too fearful of possible consequences to press the matter. She was anxious that Margret should have Fanny to look after the house and the fowl for her, but this Margret refused. 'I'll be able to do for myself a little longer,' she said, 'an' thank you kindly all the same.'

When it was known that Margret was failing, the attentions to her became more urgent. Neighbours passed each other now in the lane with a toss of the head and 'a wag of the tail.' As for Mrs. Jack, who would fain have installed herself altogether in the henwife's cottage, she spent her days quivering with indignation at the meddlesomeness of the other women. She woke Jack up once in the night with a fiery declaration that she'd speak to Father Tiernay about the pursuit of her moneyed relative, but Jack threw cold water on that scheme. 'Sure his Riverince himself, small blame to him, 'ud be as glad as another to have the bit. 'Twould be buildin' him the new schoolhouse he's wantin' this many a day, so it would.' And this suggestion made Mrs. Jack look askance at her pastor, as being also in the running for the money.

It was surprising how many queer presents found their way to Margret's larder in those days. They who had not the most suitable gift for an invalid brought what they had, and Margret received them all with the same inscrutability. She might have been provisioning for a siege. Mrs. Jack's chickens were flanked by a coarse bit of American bacon; here was a piece of salt ling, there some potatoes in a sack; a slice of salt butter was side by side with a griddle cake. Many a good woman appreciated the waste of good food even while she added to it, and sighed after that full larder for the benefit of her man and the weans at home; but all the time there was the dancing marsh-light of Margret's money luring the good souls on. There had never been any organised robbery in the Island since the cattle-lifting of the kernes long ago; but many a good woman fell of a tremble now when she thought of Margret and her 'stocking' alone through the silent night, and at the mercy of midnight robbers.

There was not a day that several offerings were not laid at Margret's feet. But suddenly she changed her stereotyped form of thanks to a mysterious utterance, 'You're maybe feeding more than you know, kind neighbours,' was the dark saying that set the women conjecturing about Margret's sanity.

Then the bolt fell. One day a big, angular, shambling girl, with Margret's suspicious eyes and cynical mouth, crossed by the ferry to the Island. She had a trunk, which Barney Ryder, general carrier to the Island, would have lifted to his ass-cart, but the new-comer scornfully waved him away. 'Come here, you two gorsoons,' she said, seizing upon young Jack Laffan and a comrade who were gazing at her grinning, 'take a hoult o' the thrunk an' lead the way to Margret Laffan's in the Red Glen. I'll crack sixpence betune yez when I get there.' The lads, full of curiosity, lifted up the trunk, and preceded her up the mile or so of hill to Margret's. She stalked after them into the sunny kitchen where Margret sat waiting, handed them the sixpence when they had put down the trunk, bundled them out and shut the door before she looked towards Margret in her chimney-corner.

The explanation came first from his Reverence, who was walking in the evening glow, when Mrs. Jack Laffan came flying towards him with her cap-strings streaming.

'Little Jack has a quare story, yer Riverince,' she cried out panting, 'about a girl's come visitin' ould Margret in the glen, an' wid a thrunk as big as a house. Him an' little Martin was kilt draggin' it up the hill.'

His Reverence waved away her excitement gently.

'I know all about it,' he said. 'Indeed I've been the means in a way of restoring Margret's daughter to her. You never knew your sister-in-law was married, Mrs. Laffan? An odd woman to drop her married name. We must call her by it in future. Mrs. Conneely is the name.'

But Mrs. Jack, with an emotion which even the presence of his Reverence could not quell, let what the neighbours described afterwards as a 'screech out of her fit to wake the dead,' and fled into her house, where on her bed she had an attack which came as near being hysterical as the strong-minded woman could compass. She only recovered when Mrs. Devine and Mrs. Cahill and the widow Mulvany, running in, proposed to drench her with cold water, when her heels suddenly left off drumming and she stood up, very determinedly, and bade them be off about their own business. She always spoke afterwards of Margret as the robber of the widow and orphan, which was satisfying if not quite appropriate.

We all heard afterwards how Margret had married on the mainland, and after this girl was born had had an attack of mania, for which she was placed in the county asylum. In time she was declared cured, and it was arranged that her husband should come for her on a certain day and remove her; but Margret, having had enough of marriage and its responsibilities, left the asylum quietly before that day came and made her way to the Island. She had been well content to be regarded as a spinster till she felt her health failing, and then she had entrusted to Father Tiernay her secret, and he had found her daughter for her.

Margret lived some months after that, and left at the time of her death thirty pounds to the fortunate heiress. The well-stocked larder had sufficed the two for quite a long time without any recourse to 'the stocking.' There was very little further friendship between the village and the Red Glen. Such of the neighbours as were led there at first by curiosity found the door shut in their faces, for Mary had Margret's suspiciousness many times intensified. After the Laffan family had recovered from the first shock of disappointment Fanny made various approaches to her cousin when she met her at mass on the Sundays, and, unheeding rebuffs, sent her a brooch and an apron at Christmas. I wish I could have seen Margret's face and Mary's over that present. It was returned to poor Fanny, with a curt intimation that Mary had no use for it, and there the matter ended.

I once asked Mary, when I knew her well enough to take the liberty, about that meeting between her and her mother, after the door was shut on young Jack's and little Martin's departing footsteps. 'Well,' said Mary, 'she looked hard at me, an' then she said, “You've grown up yalla an' bad-lookin', but a strong girl for the work. You favour meself, though I've a genteeler nose.” And then,' said Mary, 'I turned in an' boiled the kettle for the tay.'

The money did not even remain in the Island, for as soon as Margret was laid in a grave in the Abbey—with a vacant space beside her, for, said Mary, 'you couldn't tell but I'd be takin' a fancy to be buried there myself some day,'—Mary fled in the early morning before the neighbours were about. Mary looked on the Island where so many had coveted her money as a 'nest of robbers,' and so she fled, with 'the stocking' in the bosom of her gown, one morning at low tide. She wouldn't trust the money to the post office in the Island, because her cousin Lizzie was Miss Bell's servant. 'Divil a letther but the priest's they don't open an' read,' she said, 'an' tells the news afterwards to the man or woman that owns it. The news gets to them before the letter. An' if I put the fortune in there I'm doubtin' 'twould ever see London. I know an honest man in the Whiterock post office I'd betther be trustin'.

And that is how Margret's 'stocking' left the Island.

 
 
 

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