[From Captain of the Parish, 1897]
IT was the time immemorial usage of the Island that on the mountain turbaries the turf should be cut in the month of May, and that the turbaries should be open for three days only. In those three precious days was cut the fuel for the year. To be first on the ground mean the choice of the best cuttings, and long before dawn the whole country was up and away to be on the spot by sunrise. It was a jollification of hard work and of feasting-a bivouac on the brown mountain waste of hundreds of country carts and thousands of folk, fires blazing, kettles steaming, frying-pans hissing, round-bottomed pots bubbling, universal hailings, greetings, laughter, courtings -for women, girls, and children are all there by prerogative right. The weather being invariably fine at that season, the folk from the distant northern plains camp all night on the mountain-side, each family with a cartload of bedding, and a sailcloth rigged over the carts. These night-campers are the envied of all. The song is sung and the tale told with pipes and stone jars of ale around the fires; and the old men are to the fore recounting the doings that went on in past days.
Charley Milvartin had a turbary of his own on the Cairnmore, where Charley Molvurra also cut his turf without restriction of season. But Arrosey cut his turf on the mountain turbaries, a business of magnitude, with a retinue of menservants and commissariat domestics.
" You won't go with us to the turf-cutting ? " said the big man to his son the day before.
" I may see it. I think of riding across the mountains." Well, boy, well ! "
"I think I'd better tell you, father," said Molroy, and Arrosey looked round sharply.
"I'm taking Ellen Molvurra for a ride to-morrow." "Aye, boy?" he said, in an inscrutable tone. "And Lizzie Milvartin is going with us."
" Is she, indeed ?" The big man's brows contracted with a frown. " Well, you're your own master, very likely," he said ambiguously, and said no more.
Molroy drew a breath of relief. It was over. To tell his father bluntly of his purpose was clearly effectual.
It was a serene May morning, the earth peaceful and still, the sky azure, the clouds fleecy and far away up in heaven, when Ellen and Lizzie rode up the Creg. There was not a soul on the road, nor about Arrosey street, nor in the fields, except Molroy, who was waiting with his horse saddled. It was a pleasant flutter of greeting that morning. Ellen reached out her hand to Molroy as he rode alongside, and they broke into a gallop over the Tops.
After an hour on the northern road they turned into a deep glen among the mountains, and again out of the glen into a narrow ravine. It was a bridle-path by the side of a stream with hemlock and marsh-valerian and the fronds of ferns brushing their feet. At the head of the ravine a trickle of water drops from the terrace of the mountain-skirt and sprays into mist over a little cauldron from which the stream is the outflow. They stopped to gaze at the ferny precipice, and saw that its fissures also fed with perennial flow the cauldron at its base. Then they breasted a steep path zigzagging out of the ravine and out of the valley to the high terrace, the lowest margin of the true mountain. The skirt of that queenly bill is a bog fringed with a green engrailing of firm swardy ground. This was their first halt. Beneath lay Glen Auldyn, its faintly-sounding waterfall, its white houses embowered in plantations of larch and clumps of ash and sycamore, sheltered from every wind that blows across the island. Beyond were the plains of Lezayre and Andreas, mapped with farms far as the sandhills of Kirk Bride; to the right hand Ramsey with its red windmill, its stunted church tower, and the masts of schooners and smacks against the bay, blue as ultramarine; and beyond the bay, all visible in vesture of softened purple, the mountains of Cumberland and Galloway.
"Isn't this delightful? " said Ellen. " Isn't it lovely?
How fine the air is ! Is it warm or is it cool? I hardly know.
This is North Barule right above us, John? See, Lizzie ! the mountains of Scotland! how very near they are! it's really no distance. If we could gallop across, we might just lunch in some village in Scotland."
They alighted, and the girls stood and gazed on a battlefield which Molroy told them of while he tethered their horses to the fence that staked off the highlands from the steeps of the valley. Then they found a grassy seat and took out their lunch. They thought of a drink of milk, but it was too far to return to the valley in search of it.
"Besides," said Ellen, "nobody is at home to-day, I hope." "Whose big house is that in the trees there?" said Lizzie. "The Deemster's," said Molroy.
"Is he rich ? "
" He has a number of farms. Yes, I should think so! " "As rich as your father?"
"Certainly, at least I suppose so. But why, Lizzie?"
" How nice! " she said laconically. " But what are all the people in those farms? Are the farmers rich? What sort of people are they? Some of the houses are quite gentlemen's houses."
"Good homely Manx people, like ourselves," said Molroy.
" Thanks, John ; that is what we are, then ? " said Ellen laughingly.
" Lowland farms and mountain farms are very different. I wish we had a place like some of those," said Lizzie.
"Oh, you're discontented this morning," said Ellen. "That's not my mood. What mood are you in, John? Turn your head this way. I know your thoughts: don't I, Lizzie ? "
" Yes, I am sure you do," said Lizzie gravely, with an air of absolute confidence.
When they were tired of looking across the plains they mounted their horses again. Molroy pointed out the direction they were to take and led the way. They rode in single file, Ellen behind Molroy. Through the long grass, tufts of rushes, and spongy oozes of moss, with little golden bog-asphodel and white cotton-flower, they made their way, meandering through the bog. Molroy had no misgivings he had ridden up the mountain before; and the girls rode recklessly, their horses' feet splashing in the ooze, and light stray ringlets loosened by the breeze blowing about their faces. The ground was becoming more wet and spongy; but Molroy was ahead. Suddenly there was a cry from Ellen "John!"
He wheeled round. She had deviated from the track, and her horse was in the bog up to the girths. In an instant she kicked loose her stirrup and was out of the saddle on the quaking moss. With unimaginable grace she gathered up her skirt, trussed it up, and on a trembling tuft of turf balanced herself for a step; then with a bound, light as a blown feather, she passed from tuft to tuft, alighting. balancing herself and stepping on till she reached the bank of solid ground where Molroy had turned and was standing at his horse's head. Still holding her skirt forgetful, she turned to see Joey floundering. She looked to Molroy with the confidence of a child.
"John, get him out!"
A blush that had mingled with the flush of exertion remained a rosy glow as she stood holding Diamond's bridle, while he advanced to rescue Joey. The bog was fluid peat, treacherously green with grass and moss, and the little horse plunged and floundered, splashing the brown ooze and panting with fright, till he emerged on the solid ground.
" Ah ! thanks, John," she said, and she patted and caressed the little steed, with Diamond's bridle still on her arm.
Then they looked round for Lizzie. She had been crossing a bank of close heather when she saw Ellen go down, and had instantly reined up. She sat in her saddle laughing uncontrollably, with recurring paroxysms of merriment, as the transient vision of Ellen's flight arose again and again before her. But to Molroy it had been a passionate vision-grace of movement truly, but also the way of a female soul inviolably pure, never evidenced more clearly and nobly than in the movements of audacious unconsciousness.
There was a halt till Ellen's saddle was transferred to the brown blood, and then Molroy with the bespattered horse led on again on foot to wash him at the next mountain rill.
"Why, Lizzie," said Ellen, "there was nothing to laugh at, I assure you."
You didn't see yourself, Ellen." " Was I very ridiculous, then?"
"You flew, skip, skip, skip! When we get down I'll show you." When they alighted by the rill, a wild witching glance swept across Lizzie's grey eyes through tears of recurring laughter. Her light foot made an agile step, but she paused.
"No!" she said, and she drew back a wind-blown lovelock that curled and trembled on her neck. "No, Ellen! oh, no! it is impossible!"
They had tea at the old inn of Kirk Maughold, and from the inn led their horses up the eastern side of the mountain within the shadows of its mighty ridge, a long and arduous climb against grassy steeps and around projecting crags; and when they reached the summit they were fain to pause.. But a new scene of wondrous beauty awaited them. The sun was setting, and a rose-red glow as of living fire filled the whole expanse of the western sky. The scene of their morning's adventure lay a thousand feet below; but Lizzie laughed no more. A vast plain of land and sea extended to the horizon. The burning redness was on their faces and hair and in their eyes, suffusing the clouds far up into mid-heaven above their heads, and touching the long line of mountain summits southwards. They stood gazing over the plain as into an abyss. The mountains of Galloway, solid and vast, had approached near to the island; it was but a strait between. The sails far out at sea were as on a lake among the mountains. Tiny curls of smoke rose from the evening fires of farms in Scotland. The Irish land, behind which the sun was setting, extended in low blue banks far away southwards to the mountains of Mourne and its holy dome of St. Donard. They were spell-bound. They could only gaze, while it seemed not to change, but to remain as if for ever. The horses tossed their heads and champed their bits and remained still again. But the solemn scene was dissolving and vanishing; and while they still stood it had gone, leaving a vast afterglow, as if Nature itself was astonished and mute.
In the dewy twilight they followed the winding sheeppaths around the hills homewards. As they approached the turbaries, fires were blazing, figures moving, and carts loaded with turf-cutters were leaving for home. Through the groups lining the road on both sides for a long mile they rode in the twilight, ambling at an easy pace and drawing rein to watch the spreading of canvas shelters and the supper cookings around the fires.
Once past the turbaries they came on at a gallop. Ellen was still on Diamond. The brown blood's fine action and easy pace enhanced her graceful mien as she rode a score of lengths ahead. They passed cart after cart loaded with people. As they rounded the shoulder of Sartal there was a gig ahead close behind a line of carts. It was Mr. Molroy of Arrosey and his people. When Ellen came alongside she reined up to speak to him. He looked at Diamond.
"Well, girl! and have you had a nice day? Where's your company, Ellen ? Ah I see they're with you. I'm going too slow for you; don't you let me keep you, girl."
He watched her spring forward as she gave the rein to her horse.
"Make room there, boys! give these ones room ! " he called out to the men in the carts going on in front.
"Good evening, Mr. Molroy," said Lizzie, as she drew up alongside the gig.
"It's a fine evening," he said, in a constrained and cold tone; then he turned to his son, who was behind.
"John! is that horse "-and he nodded towards Ellen, who was already out of sight around the next turn-"is he too hard in the mouth ? Keep an eye on her. This road is bad, if she don't know it."
"She's all right, father."
"Aw, I hope she is," he said, with the tone of dismissing him.
That evening as he passed the Tops the big man drew up his gig at the row, and Curlat came out and stood bareheaded in the road.
"Did thou see them going down, Curlat?" "Aw, aye, this half-hour past."
" Did thou take notice of anything ? What was it thou took notice of, Curlat?"
" Well, master, Ellen was ahead by herself, and him behind with the other one."
"Aye, Curlat," said the big man, with a jerk of positiveness. " But thou can't see everything, for all thou're middling keen too. Didn't thou see what horse Ellen bad? She was on Diamond. Thou were right enough when thou said, 'Look at her in the saddle.' She'll have as good a horse as that one of these days yet. Still thou're nothing for horses thyself, Curlat."
" Me, man ! aw no."
" Thou weren't in the horse-soldiers at all, Curlat ? A pity thou hadn't been in the horse-soldiers! " and the big man shook the reins and went off at a sharp trot, to chime in with his own satisfaction, now that he had shared it with the soldier.