[From Captain of the Parish, 1897]
IN the Whitehaven school period, when Molroy was home for the holidays, he used to see at Arrosey Church on Sundays a little girl just into her teens, who sat alone in her pew on the south side of the church under a narrow stained window. She was straight and shapely, with black rippling hair flowing over her shoulders, and the sun, shining through the colours of the window, fell on her hair with the solemn beauty of a rainbow. She had large dark eyes, fringed with jet black lashes, steady, penetrating, exquisitely pencilled ; always meeting Molroy's look with smiling recognition and a softening of sweetness and wonder, so lovely that he sought their every glance; yet to all other eyes than his distant in recognition and forbidding in their firmness and indifference.
This was Ellen Molvurra, the daughter of old Charley Molvurra of Creg Awin, the next place below Arrosey down the Creg, who, when John Molroy had been at Nell Gawn's, a big boy of twelve, had also been there, a little thing of seven or eight. In those days they used to come home from school together, and that acquaintance had continued almost on the same terms and unchanged when all his other like associations had been long severed. Every Sunday after church she unhesitatingly joined him, and walked by his side till they parted at Arrosey gate. Where the ridge of Arrosey slopes southwards to terminate in timbered crags at the fork of Arrosey brook and Narradale river, is the farm of Creg Awin-the farmhouse standing high above the road, looking forth south and west from among ash trees and elders, with an ash-girdled garden on the slope between the farm street and the road below. As you ascend the Creg road, you see only its chimneys and the ridge of the roof, and the gable of a high slated barn with red windows. Farther up, you turn and look back through the farm gate. The barn is nearest you; then low thatched cowsheds and cartsheds of no definite colour; and beyond them the house gable and the house porch, gleaming in sunshine and white as snow. Below the highroad you look down on the roof of a water thrashing-mill in the ravine of Arrosey brook, with a narrow bridge of one arch spanning the brook for the farms on the Vaish Hills that run parallel with the ridge of Arrosey westwards.
Charley Molvurra was declining towards threescore and ten, white-haired, reserved, and silent, with an air of refinement and a fixed look of preoccupation of mind. Mistress Molvurra was a broad contrast to "the master "-sandy-haired, red and freckled, hard-featured, and pale blue eyes, twenty years younger than her husband, and was his second wife and the stepmother of Ellen. Their farm was in pasture. They had cows, sheep, pigs, and poultry, and kept a pony to run in the gig to Douglas market on Saturdays. Besides the farm they had the water thrashing-mill in the ravine below, to which all the corn in the locality was brought to be thrashed in itself, if not enough to make a living on, yet a substantial addition to the farm. Charley Molvurra was far from being a poor man. He had married the heiress of Creg Awin, the mother of Ellen; and besides, the present Mistress Molvurra, if she had no fortune of her own, was at least supremely economical. They lived plainly, and they spent little or nothing. The "mistress" was a Methodist, and went to Arrosey Chapel; Charley himself went nowhere on Sundays, and Ellen went to Arrosey Church. Besides her father and the mistress, there was no one but Ellen, the youngest of the family, the rest all boys, who had emigrated to distant America. If you go up the Creg highroad to the next turn, you find on your left, just on the edge of the ravine, Arrosey Methodist Chapel, within an enclosure with a belt of Austrian pines around it. There is a little white gate with whitewashed pillars in the sod fence, and the chapel itself whitewashed walls and roof all over. It has a square porch, and stands gable to the road, with a wooden shutter on the gable window. This was the big man's place of worship, and this was where the mistress went to the preaching on Sunday afternoons and evenings. That Ellen went to church was a matter of expostulation on the part of the mistress, but she made no impression whatever on Ellen, and seldom got an answer to her complaints. It would perhaps have been enough for Ellen that her dead mother had been a Churchwoman, but it was also quite enough that her stepmother went to chapel. There was another reason; at church she met John Molroy. When Molroy was away at Whitehaven school, Ellen, bidding farewell to Nell Gawn, was now going across the Vaish Hills to "the" school of the town. It was a five-mile walk; but Ellen Molvurra was like a deer. Her limbs were untiring, and every evening old Charley came down the farm street and stood watching the opposite hill for her to appear in sight coming over the ridge. It was the sweetest moment of his day when her lithe form came into view, her long hair tossing and flying in the breeze, as with short and bounding step she came within sight of home. She thought not of her own holidays, but of Molroy's. For the times of his absence were the clouds, and the times of his being at home were the sunshine of Ellen's years. When be was at home she met him at church on Sundays, and on the happiness of these meetings she lived through the days of the week.
While she was still a school-girl, and about the time of Molroy's going to Cambridge, her father brought home for her a saddle and bridle and whip. There was that evening a rather unpleasant hour with the mistress on account of the waste of money. To Ellen it was a profound joy. Her mother had been a horsewoman, and her mother's saddle was, in fact, still in existence,-moth-eaten, mildewed, and decayed, high up in Creg Awin barn, on a cross-timber near the ridge of the roof. From that day the pony Joey became Ellen's own, and to sit in the saddle became mere second nature. Joey was under-sized, tawny-yellow with black mane, tail, and feet, flung out his feet, danced, pranced, was full of mischief, surefooted and enduring as a mule. In the open field he came to Ellen, and put his head to the pocket of her frock for a p of sugar. He knew her foot, though it was light as the beat of a bird's wing, and neighed his recognition ere she lifted the latch of the stable-door. The alternation of term and vacation at Cambridge at first brought Molroy home to Arrosey for longer periods than before. Ellen was glad to find how long his vacations lasted. But subsequently for the greater part of his student days he spent his vacations elsewhere, and if he came to Arrosey at all, it was but for a brief visit. In these earlier vacations he spent his days fishing in the streams or off the coast, wandering about the island, or breaking a colt to saddle and harness; at Christmas, shooting woodcock in Narradale woods, snipe all over the wet wastes around Arrosey Tops, and duck in the Curraghs of Ballaugh. He saw Ellen Molvurra only at church on Sundays.
"Good morning, Ellen ! how do you do ?" was the tone of his salutation.
"Quite well, thank you, John ! are you quite well?" Their meetings and their conversation never went beyond the pleasant mile on the highroad on Sunday mornings. He liked to meet Ellen. He waited for her if he saw her coming up the Creg for church, and she hastened her step with the swift involuntary energy of gladness.
Molroy's vacations were no longer spent at Arrosey. Ellen had ceased to be a school-girl. She changed imperceptibly but swiftly. She was growing wonderfully beautiful. Country opinion, when expressed with less acrimony than usual, pronounced Ellen as taking after her mother's side, and dressy viciously dressy. The mistress admitted that she believed Ellen's whole heart was set on one thing-to twist her father round her finger and not to notice that there was such a person in the world as her stepmother. Her father indulged her sufficiently to give the mistress ground for some such conviction, and it was true that in Ellen's eyes the mistress was of small account. Parson Ollikins seldom "visited." He came on a chance afternoon perhaps once in six months to Creg Awin. He had little to say, merely to fulfil some sort of duty in showing his face at the house.
" Aw, him? Ollikins ? there's not much in him, neither good nor bad. He's a harmless sort of man. He's stuck up a bit, holding his nose in the air, you can see; but they're all alike that way. He's as good as the rest of them."
This was the opinion of Mrs. Molvurra, as of most other people thereabouts.
The mistress preferred a visit from an English preacher.
Unfortunately the preacher always went to Arrosey to tea, and the mistress had to be content with entertaining common locals. Few other visitors came to Creg Awin, but all who came were friends of the mistress, none of them of any interest to Ellen. So she had to form her notions and opinions very much by herself. She had indeed been confirmed in Arrosey Church; but it was the expressed conviction of the mistress that Ellen was "worldly, aye, worldlier tel' ever I saw a girl that was in the habit of going to a place of worship. Aw, her heart is not changed at all. No, Ellen isn't converted at them at all, for all their confirmation! Aw no, she hasn't experienced the great change at all."
The mistress might be right. The fact was that Ellen's thoughts were not occupied with such matters as the great change, but with John Molroy. John Molroy was the only person she knew who, living a part of his life within her own sphere, had also lived outside it and above it. He was the only person to whom she wished to be nearer, and to whom she would fain have spoken about ever so many things, most of them pronouncedly worldly. The mistress would perhaps have fainted with horror if she had known of these thoughts, or that Ellen had once really blushed-which latter was true all the same. For soon after she got her new saddle she had been riding up the Creg and had met John Molroy walking down. Her frock scarce covered her knees. She had blushed then; but looking into his face, she was reassured, and laughingly told him all about her new saddle and the mistress being angry; and they had talked for quite half-an-hour, and he had never noticed what sort of frock she had on. The mistress might have fainted a second time if she had known that Ellen cherished the memory of meeting Molroy that long half-hour. And thus she thought a thousand times as she combed her hair in her own room, with its window looking forth across Arrosey brook to the green slopes of the Vaish hills. Besides her horse she had two other possessions peculiarly her own, her room and the garden. The garden extended below the farm to the highroad, with ash trees around it and fences of thorn. There were fruit trees and vegetable beds, but especially flowers-sweet-williams, gillyflowers, monkshood, mignonette, valerian, honesty, modesty, London-pride, lupins, dahlias, tulips, crocuses, pretty-sally, polyanthus, Michaelmas daisies, sweet-leaf, southern-wood, pink lilacs, yellow laburnums, and ever so many roses, but especially white roses. Besides all these she had a monthly rose that grew against the house gable, and nodded with its blooms at one of the windows. All these in their season she brought into her room. . The furniture had been old, of mahogany, with brass mountings and handles, all dim with neglect. But she had transformed it with her own fingers into brightness and beauty. The brass shone with new life. The mahogany became glossy as a mirror-every niche, every seam, both within and without, purified from every stain. She had got golden paper. A town painter, a tipsy old veteran, who was painting in Arrosey Chapel, came to wash the ceiling and paper the walls of her room; and the mistress had complained in vain of the painter's wages. The fire-grate, the fender, the fire-irons glittered. There was a carpet that cost " pounds ! pounds ! ! pounds! ! ! " as the mistress repeated in vain. Old Charley doted on Ellen. She was the light of his eye, the very pulse of his heart, incomparable, exquisite. Whatever brooding thoughts had crept into his brain, the sight of her instantly dispersed them all. Her voice was the one sweet sound, music to his ear and joy to his heart. Ellen was beautiful, not by accident, but by inevitable inheritance. Her beauty had ancestral existence. It was of ancient lineage, with its history, the passions of men who, were reckless in their courage, and the beauty of women who were invincible in their virtue.
" Aw !bred in the bone," said the soldier at Matt's one evening, with a parcel of them taking a sup together. " She's very straight, like the mother, is Ellen ! "
"She's got the cleanest pair of heels that ever took my eye, anyway," said Dan Creer, the shoemaker and tenant of Arrosey glebe land.
" But thou wouldn't be noticing a girl that way," said Wade, the road overseer, a rival hero of no kidney to speak of.
"Not notice a foot! And isn't it my trade?" said Dan. "Aye, Dan; but thou never made a shoe like what she's wearing," said Wade.
"'Deed thou have had thy eye on her heels thyself, Wade," said Dan.
" And ain't I making the roads for her to walk on, to be sure? What do thou say to that, Creer?"
" Come, men, less noise," said the soldier. " It's more like her uncle now she is, after all," he resumed.. " You see, the mother was more patient-like. But Ellen's blood has got no weakening in it; no, it's about neat, that liquor! Do you remember the uncle, men?"
" No, Mr. Curlat, sir! You've known a deal in your time, Mr. Curlat, sir," said Wade.
"I knew that man, anyway," said the soldier, " and I've fought with him. Sit still, men, sit still. He was a captain -well, he was a skipper, anyway. A captain, of course Captain Sylvester. And him and Arrosey were friends. But, you see, it was day and night drinking and spreeing, like two devils. They were going places to get at any that would fight, and 'fight or put your tail between your legs !' Aw, yes,
I fought with that man ! That was the way every time he was home. Then Captain Sylvester got lost out at Iceland.
Then you know, men, it was all over. Aw, them things is sunk middling deep into Arrosey, men. People don't know neither the bad nor the good that's in most of us."
But what were they saying about Arrosey and-well, the Captain's sister, you may say?" said Wade.
" They were saying this, Wade, boy-that if Arrosey himself gets to know thou're asking that question, thou'll never do a day's work on the highroads again," said the soldier, his head and hands trembling with passion.
" But, Mr. Curlat, sir-"
"We'll stop this talk, men ! " said the soldier, and the steel fist came down with a bang on the table, and the pint cups shook and splashed the ale.
" Aw, Curlat is that way, though, when he's got a little sup," said the overseer half-an-hour later, when the soldier had gone up the Creg. " Still, it's not often he's taking it.
No ! Still, he'll take a little sup now and again for all. He knows a deal, doe, Mr. Curlat; aye, a deal, a deal."
"Aw, Wade," said the shoemaker, " say a good word for him. He made thee shake in thy shoes to-night. Thou'll never ask that question again, Wade, boy ! "
"Only thou're the tenant of the parson's farm, Creer," said the overseer, taking the floor, " I would strike thee."
" No ! no ! John, man! Go and take a prayer at the chapel, and go to tea with the preacher at Charlotte's. Keep my hands off thee as long as thou can."
Nothing was actually done between the two: just the bare excess of discretion in both.
Ellen Molvurra had begun to attract attention from common eyes by a charm, an energy, a force, embodied and manifest wherever she appeared. The standard of notions was upset in the whole locality.
She might have been seen on summer mornings, hooded in a white sun-bonnet, milking the cows, feeding the poultry, spreading linen on the bushes in the waste above the homefield or bleaching it on the velvet verdure of its slope. When she was seventeen or thereabouts she began to go to market on Saturdays in place of the mistress. A drive in the gig with her father; a trestle-stand in the market-place among women from all parts of the island, her butter and eggs and poultry before her; after the market the shopping, and the long drive home. She was not bent on selling dear or on buying cheap. She never asked more nor took less than the market price. What the price was, whether more or less than usual, she gave attention to for her father's sake, not for her own. Letters came to her from her brothers in America, and she strolled through the homefield to the back of the hill, reading them through and through. Many an hour of longings, waitings, dreams, she spent before the great oval lookingglass, with arms aloft, combing out and folding with infinite delicacy of arrangement her luxuriant rippling black hair. Five or six generations of grandmothers and great-grandmothers had combed and curled and plaited their hair before this glass. It was her companion, her confessional. John Molroy was the magnetic pole of all her thoughts. But even in his vacations he was no longer at home, save for a day or two, and then away again. Meanwhile vague reports came to Ellen's ears that the heir was a bit wild. She merely thought of him with the same longing, in no way lessened by a new element in her life-a girl's friendship.