[from Hall Caine The Deemster]




THORKELL MYLREA had waited long for a dead man's shoes, but he was wearing them at length. He was forty years of age; his black hair was thin on the crown and streaked with grey about the temples ; the crows' feet were thick under his small eyes, and the backs of his lean hands were coated with a reddish down. But he had life in every vein, and restless energy in every limb.

His father, Ewan Mylrea, had lived long, and mourned much, and died in sorrow. The good man had been a patriarch among his people, and never a serener saint had trod the ways of men. He was already an old man when his wife died. Over her open grave he tried to say, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed —" But his voice faltered and broke. Though he lived ten years longer, he held up his head no more. Little! by little he relinquished all active interest in material affairs. The world had lost its light for him, and he was travelling in the dusk.

On his sons, Thorkell, the elder, Gilcrist, the younger, with nearly five years between them, the conduct of his estate devolved. Never were brothers more unlike. Gilcrist, resembling his father, was of a simple and tranquil soul ; Thorkell's nature was fiery, impetuous, and crafty. The end was the inevitable one ; the heel of Thorkell was too soon on the neck of Gilcrist.

Gilcrist's placid spirit overcame its first vexation, and he seemed content to let his interests slip from his hands. Before a year was out Thorkell Mylrea was in effect the master of Ballamona; his younger brother was nightly immersed in astronomy and the Fathers, and the old man was sitting daily, in his slippers, in the high-backed arm-chair by the ingle, over which these words were cut in the black oak " God's Providence is mine inheritance."

They were strange effects that followed. People said they had never understood the extraordinary fortunes of Ballamona. Again and again the rents were raised throughout the estate, until the farmers cried in the grip of their poverty that they would neither go nor starve. Then the waggons of Thorkell Mylrea, followed close at their tail-boards by the carts of the clergy, drove into the cornfields when the corn was cut, and picked up the stocks and bore them away amid the deep curses of the bare-armed reapers, who looked on in their impotent rage.

Nevertheless, Thorkell Mylrea said, far and wide, without any show of reserve, and with every accent of,sincerity, that never before had his father's affairs worn so grave a look. He told Ewan as much time after time, and then the troubled old face looked puzzled. The end of many earnest consultations between father and son, as the one sat by the open hearth and the other leaned against the lettered ingle, was a speedy recourse to certain moneys that lay at an English bank, as well as the old man's signature to documents of high moment.

Old Ewan's spirits sank yet lower year by year, but he lived on peacefully enough. As time went by, he talked less, and his humid eyes seemed to look within in degree as they grew dim to things without. But the day came at length when the old man died in his chair, before the slumberous peat fire on the hearth, quietly, silently, without a movement, his graspless fingers fumbling a worm-eaten hour-glass, his long waves of thin white hair falling over his drooping shoulders, and his upturned eyes fixed in a stony stare on the text carved on the trannel-tree shelf, " God's Providence is mine inheritance."

That night Thorkell sat alone at the same ingle, in the same chair, glancing at many parchments and dropping them one by one into the fire. Long afterwards, when idle tongues were set to wag, it was said that the elder son of Ewan Mylrea had found a means whereby to sap away his father's personalty. Then it was remembered that through all his strange misfortunes Thorkell had borne an equal countenance.

They buried the old man under the elder tree by the wall of the churchyard that stands over against the sea. It seemed as if half of the inhabitants of the island came to his funeral, and six sets of bearers claimed their turn to carry him to the grave. The day was a gloomy day of winter; there was not a bird or a breath in the heavy air; the sky was low and empty; the long dead sea was very grey and cold; and over the unploughed land the withered stalks of the last crop lay dank on the mould. When the company returned to Ballamona they sat down to eat and drink and make merry, for "excessive sorrow is exceeding dry." No one asked for the will; there was no will because there was no personalty, and the lands were bylaw the inheritance of the eldest son. Thorkell was at the head of his table, and he smiled a little, and sometimes reached over the board to touch with his glass the glass that was held out towards him. Gilcrist had stood with these mourners under the empty sky, and his heart was as bare and desolate, but he could endure their company no longer. In an agony of grief and remorse, and rage as well, he got up from his untouched food and walked away to his own room. It was a little, quiet nest of a room that looked out by one small window over the marshy Curraghs that lay between the house and the sea. There Gilcrist sat alone that day in a sort of dull stupor.

The daylight had gone, and the lamps on the headland of Ayre were twinkling over the blank waters, when the door opened, and Thorkell entered. Gilcrist stirred the fire, and it broke into a bright blaze. Thorkell's face wore a curious expression.

" I have been thinking a good deal about you, Gilcrist ; especially during the last few days. In fact, I have been troubled about you, to say the truth," said Thorkell, and then he paused. "Affairs are in a bad way at Ballamona-very. "

Gilcrist made no response whatever, but clasped his hands about his knee and looked steadily into the fire.

" We are neither of us young men now, but if you should think of-of-anything, I should consider it wrong to stand-to put myself, in your way-to keep you here, that is-to your disadvantage, you know."

Thorkell was standing with his back to the fire, and his fingers interlaced behind him. Gilcrist rose to his feet. "Very well," he said with a strained quietness, and then turned towards the window and looked out at the dark sea. Only the sea's voice from the shore beyond the churchyard broke the silence in that little room.

Thorkell stood a moment, leaning 0n the mantelshelf, and the flickering lights of the fire seemed to make sinister smiles 0n his face. Then he went out without a word.

Next morning at daybreak Gilcrist Mylrea was riding towards Derby Haven with a pack in green cloth across his saddle-bow. He took passage by the King Orry, an old sea tub plying once a week to Liverpool. From Liverpool he went on to Cambridge, to offer himself as a sizar at the University.

It had never occurred to any one that Thorkell Mylrea would marry. But his father was scarcely cold in his grave, the old sea tub that took his brother across the Channel had hardly grounded at Liverpool, when Thorkell Mylrea offered his heart and wrinkled hand and the five hundred acres of Ballamona to a lady twenty years of age, who lived at a distance of some six miles from his estate. It would be more precise to say that the liberal tender was made to the lady's father, for her own will was little more than a cypher in the bargaining. She was a girl of sweet spirit, very tender and sub. missive, and much under the spell of religious feeling. Her mother had died during her infancy, and she had been brought up in a household that was without other children, in a gaunt rectory that never echoed with children's voices. Her father was Archdeacon of the island, Archdeacon Teare ; her own name was Joanee.

If half the inhabitants of the island turned out at old Ewan's funeral, the entire population of four parishes made a holiday of his son's wedding. The one followed hard upon the other, and thrift was not absent from either. Thorkell was married in the early spring at the Archdeacon's church at Andreas.

It would be rash to say that the presence of the great company at the wedding was intended as a tribute to the many virtues of Thorkell Mylrea. Indeed, it was as well that the elderly bridegroom could not overhear the conversation with which some of the homely folk beguiled the way.

" Aw, the murther of it," said one buirdly Manxman, "five-and-forty if he's a day, and a wizened old polecat anyway."

" You'd really think the gel's got no feelin's. Aw, shockin', shockin' extraordinary !"

"And a rael good gel too, they're sayin'. Amazin' ! Amazin' ! "

The marriage of Thorkell was a curious ceremony. First there walked abreast the fiddler and the piper, playing vigorously the "Black and Grey;" then came the bridegroom's men carrying osiers, as emblems of their superiority over the bridesmaids, who followed them. Three times the company passed round the church before entering it, and then they trooped up towards the communion-rail.

Thorkell went through the ceremony with the air of a whipped terrier. On the outside he was gay in frills and cuffs, and his thin hair was brushed crosswise over the bald patch on his crown. He wore buckled shoes and blue laces to his breeches. But his brave exterior lent him small support as he took the ungloved hand of his girlish bride. He gave his responses in a voice that first faltered, and then sent out a quick, harsh, loud pipe. No such gaunt and grim shadow of a joyful bridegroom ever before knelt beside a beautiful bride, and while the Archdeacon married this spectre of a happy man to his own submissive daughter, the whispered comments of the throng that filled nave and aisles and gallery sometimes reached his own ears.

"You wouldn't think it, now, that the craythur's sold his own gel, and him preaching there about the covenant and Isaac and Rebecca, and all that !"

"Hush, man, it's Laban and Jacob he's meaning."

When the ceremony had come to an end, and the bridegroom's eyes were no longer fixed in a stony stare on the words of the Commandments printed in black and white under the chancel window, the scene underwent a swift change. In one minute Thorkell was like another man. All his abject bearing fell away. When the party was clear of the churchyard, four of the groom's men started for the Rectory at a race, and the first to reach it won a flask of brandy, with which he returned at high speed to the wedding company. Then Thorkell, as the custom was, bade his friends to form a circle where they stood in the road, while he drank of the brandy and handed the flask to his wife.

"Custom must be indulged with custom," said he, " or custom will weep."

After that the company moved on until they reached the door of the Archdeacon's house, where the bridecake was broken over the bride's head, and then thrown to be scrambled for by the noisy throng that blew neat's horns and fired guns and sang ditties by the way.

Thorkell, with the chivalrous bearing of an old courtier, delivered up his wife to the flock of ladies who were ready to pounce upon her at the door of the Rectory. Then he mingled freely with the people and chatted and bantered, and made quips and quibbles. Finally, he invited all and sundry to partake freely of the oaten cake and ale that he had himself brought from Ballamona in his car, for the refreshment of his own tenants there present. The fare was Lenten fare for a wedding day, and some of the straggle-headed troop grumbled, and some sniffled, and some scratched their heads, and some laughed outright. The beer and bread were left almost untouched.

Thorkell was blind to the discontent of his guests, but the Archdeacon perceived it, and forthwith called such of the tumultuous assemblage as came from a distance into his barns. There the creels were turned bottom up, and four close-jointed gates lifted off their hinges were laid on the top for tables. Then from pans and boilers that simmered in the kitchen a great feast was spread. First came the broth, well loaded with barley and cabbage; and not destitute of the flavour of numerous sheep's heads. This was served in wooden piggins, shells being used as spoons. Ther suet pudding, as round as a well-fed salmon, and as long as a 30lb. cod. Last of all a fat hog, roasted whole, and cut with a cleaver but further dissected only by teeth and fingers for the unfastidious Manxman cared nothing for knife and fork.

After that there were liquor and lusty song And all the time there could be heard over the boisterous harmony of the feasters within the barn the yet noisier racket of the people without.

By this time, whatever sentiment of doubtful charity had been harboured in the icy breast of the Manxman had been thawed away under the charitable effects of good cheer, and Thorkell Mylrea and Archdeacon Teare began to appear in truly Christian character.

" It's none so ould he is yet, at all at all." "Ould? He hasn't the hayseed out of his hair, boy."

" And a shocking powerful head-piece at him for all."

There were rough jokes and dubious toasts, and Thorkell enjoyed them all. There was dancing, too, and fiddling, and the pipes at intervals, and all went merry until midnight, when the unharmonious harmonies of fiddle and pipes and unsteady song went off over the Curraghs in various directions.

Next morning Thorkell took his wife home to Ballamona. They drove in the open springless car in which he had brought down the oaten cake and ale. Thorkell had seen that the remains of these good viands were thriftily gathered up. He took them back home with him, carefully packed under the board on which his young wife sat.


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HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2003