[from Hall Caine The Deemster]



THREE years passed, and Thorkell's fortunes grew apace. He toiled early and late. Time had no odd days or holiday in his calendar. Every day was working day except Sunday, and then Thorkell, like a devout Christian, went to church. Thorkell believed that he was a devoutly religious man, but rumour whispered that he was better able to make his words fly up than to prevent his thoughts from remaining below.

His wife did not seem to be a happy woman. During the three years of her married life she had not borne her husband children. It began to dawn upon her that Thorkell's sole desire in marriage had been a child, a son, to whom he could leave what no man can carry away.

One Sunday morning as Thorkell and his wife were on their way to church, a young woman 0f about twenty passed them, and as she went by she curtsied low to the lady. The girl had a comely nut-brown face with dark wavy clusters of hair tumbling over her forehead from beneath a white sun-bonnet, of which the poke had been dexterously rolled back. It was summer, and her light blue bodice was open, and showed a white under-bodice and a full neck. Her sleeves were rolled up over the elbows, and her dimpled arms were bare and brown. There was a look of coquetry in her hazel' eyes as they shot up their dark lustre under her long lashes, and then dropped as quickly to her feet. She wore buckle shoes with the open clock tops.

Thorkell's quick eyes glanced over her, and when the girl curtsied to his wife he fell back r the few paces that he was in front of her.

" Who is she? " he asked.

Thorkell's wife replied that the girl was a net-maker from near Peeltown. " What's her name ? "

Thorkell's wife answered that the girl's name was Mally Kerruish.

"Who are her people? Has she any ? "

Thorkell's wife explained that the girl had mother only, who was poor and worked in the fields, and had come to Ballamona for help during the last hard winter.

" Humph ! Doesn't look as if the daughter wanted for much. How does the girl come by her fine feathers if her mother lives on charity? "

Thorkell's wizened face was twisted into grotesque lines. His wife's face saddened, and her voice dropped as she hinted in faltering accents that " scandal did say—say—"

"Well, woman, what does scandal say?" asked Thorkell, and his voice had a curious lilt, and his mouth wore a strange smile.

" It says—I'm afraid, Thorkell, the poor girl is no better than she ought to be."

Thorkell snorted, and then laughed in his throat like a frisky gelding.

" I thought she looked like a lively young puffin," he said, and then trotted on in front, his head rolling between his shoulders and his eyes down. After going a few yards farther he slackened speed again.

" Lives near Peeltown, you say—a net-maker—Mally—is it Mally Kerruish ? "

Thorkell's wife answered with a nod of the head, and then her husband faced about, and troubled her with no further conversation until he drew up at the church door, and said, "Quick, woman, quick, and mind you shut the pew door after you."

But " God remembered Rachel and hearkened to her," and then, for the first time, the wife of Thorkell Mylrea began to show a cheerful countenance. Thorkell's own elevation of spirits was yet more noticeable. He had heretofore showed no discontent with the old homestead that had housed his people for six generations, but he now began to build another and much larger house on the rising ground at the foot of Slieu Dhoo. His habits underwent some swift and various changes. He gave away no grey blankets that winter, the itinerant poor who were "on the houses" often went empty from his door, and—most appalling change of all—he promptly stopped his tithe. When the parson's cart drove up to Ballamona, Thorkell turned the horse's head, and gave the flank a sharp cut with his whip. The parson came in white wrath.

" Let every pig dig for herself," said Thorkell. " I'll daub grease on the rump of your fat pig no more."

Thorkell's new homestead rose rapidly, and when the walls were ready for the roof, the masons and carpenters went up to Ballamona for the customary feast of cowree and jough and binjean.

"What ! Is it true, then, as the saying is," Thorkell exclaimed at the sight of them, "that when the sport is the merriest it is time to give up?"

They ate no cowree at Ballamona that night, and they drank no jough.

" We've been going to the goat's house for wool," grunted one of them as they trudged home,

"Aw, well, man, and what can you get of the cat but his skin ? " growled another.

Next day they put on the first timbers of the roof, and the following night a great storm swept over the island, and the roof timbers were torn away, not a spar or purlin being left in its place. Thorkell fumed at the storm and swore at the men, and when the wind subsided he had the work done afresh. The old homestead of Ballamona was thatched, but a the new one must be slated, and slates were quarried at and carted to Slieu Dhoo, and run on to the new roof. A dead calm had prevailed during these operations, but it was the calm that lies in the heart of the storm, and the night after they were completed the other edge of the cyclone passed over the island, tearing up the trees by their roots, and shaking the old Ballamona to its foundations. Thorkell Mylrea slept not a wink, but tramped up and down his bedroom the long night through; and next morning, at daybreak, he drew the blind of his window, and peered through the haze of the dawn to where his new house stood on the breast of Slieu Dhoo. He could just descry its blue walls—it was roofless.

The people began to mutter beneath their breath.

"Aw, man, it's a judgment," said one.

"He has been middlin' hard on the widda and fatherless, and it's like enough that there's Them aloft that knows it."

"What's that they're saying? " said one old crone, "what comes with the wind goes with the water."

" Och, I knew his father—him and me were same as brothers—and a good ould man for all."

" Well, and many a good cow has a bad calf," said the old woman.

Thorkell went about like a cloud of thunder, and when he heard that the accidents to his new homestead were ascribed to supernatural agencies he flashed like forked lightning.

"Where there are geese there's dirt," he said, "and where there are women there's talking. Am I to be frightened if an old woman sneezes?"

But before Thorkell set to work again he paid his tithe. He paid it with a rick of discoloured oats that had been cut in the wet and threshed before it was dry. Thorkell had often wondered whether his cows would eat it. The next Sunday morning the parson paused before his sermon to complain that certain of his parishioners, whom he would not name at present, appeared to think that what was too bad for the pigs was good enough for the priests. Let the Church of God have no more of their pig-swill. Thorkell in his pew chuckled audibly and muttered something about paying for a dead horse.

It was spring when the second roof was blown down, and the new house stood roofless until early summer. Then Thorkell sent four lean pigs across to the Rectory, and got his carpenters together and set them to work. The roofing proceeded without interruption.

The primrose was not-yet gone, the swallow had not yet come, and the young grass under the feet of the oxen was still small and sweet when Thorkell's wife took to her bed. Then all Ballamona was astir. Hommy-beg, the deaf gardener of Ballamona, was sent in the hot haste of his best two miles an hour to the village, commonly known as the Street, to summon the midwife. This good woman was called Kerry Quayle ; she was a spinster of forty, and she was all but blind.

"I'm thinking the woman-body is after going on the straw," said Hommy-beg, when he reached the Street, and this was the sum of the message that he delivered.

"Then we'd better be off, as the saying is," remarked Kerry, who never accepted responsibility for any syllable she ever uttered.

When they got to Ballamona, Thorkell Mylrea bustled Hommy-beg into the square springless car, and told him to drive to Andreas, and fetch the Archdeacon without an hour's delay. Hommy-beg set off at fine paces that carried him to the Archdeaconry a matter of four miles an hour.

Thorkell followed Kerry Quayle to the room above. When they stepped into the bedroom Thorkell drew the midwife aside to a table on which a large candle stood in a tall brass candlestick with gruesome gargoyles carved on the base and upper flange. From this table he picked up a small Testament bound in shiny leather with silver clasps.

"I'm as great a man as any in the island," said Thorkell, in his shrill whisper, "for laughing at the simpletons that talk about witches and boaganes and the like of that."

"So you are, as the saying is," said Kerry. "I'd have the law on the lot of them, if I had my way," said Thorkell, still holding the book.

" Aw, and shockin' powerful luck it would be, as the old body said, if all the witches and boaganes in the island could be run into the sea," said Kerry.

" Pshaw ! I'm talking of the simpletons that believe in them," said Thorkell snappishly. "I'd clap them all in Castle Rushen."

"Aw, yes, and clean law and clean justice, too, as the Irishman said."

"So don't think I want the midwife to take her oath in my house," said Thorkell.

"Och, no, of course not. You wouldn't bemean yourself, as they say."

"But, then, you know what the saying is, Kerry, 'Custom must be indulged with custom, or custom will weep,"' and, saving this, Thorkell's voice took a most insinuating tone.

"Aw, now, and I'm as good as here and there one at standing up for custom, as the saying is," said the midwife.

The end of it all was that Kerry Quayle took there and then a solemn oath not to use sorcery or incantation of any kind in the time of travail, not to change the infant at the hour of its birth, not to leave it in the room for a week afterwards without spreading the tongs over his crib, and much else of the like solemn urport.

The dusk deepened, and the Archdeacon had not yet arrived. Night came on, and the room was dark, but Thorkell would not allow a lamp to be brought in, or a fire to be lighted. Some time later, say six hours after Hommy-beg had set out on his six-mile journey, a lumbrous, jolting sound of heavy wheels came from the road below the Curragh, and soon afterwards the Archdeacon entered the room.

" So dark," he said, on stumbling across the threshold.

"Ah ! Archdeacon," said Thorkell, with the unaccustomed greeting of an outstretched hand, "the Church shall bring light to the chamber here," and Thorkell handed the tinder-box to the Archdeacon and led him to the side of the table on which the candle stood.

In an instant the Archdeacon, laughing a little or protesting meekly against his clerical honours, was striking the flint, when Thorkell laid a hand on his arm.

"Wait one moment; of course you know how I despise superstition?"

"Ah ! of course, of course," said the Archdeacon.

"But, then, you know the old saying, Archdeacon, 'Custom must be indulged with custom,' you know it ? " And Thorkell's face shut up like a nutcracker.

"So I must bless the candle. Eh, is that it ? " said the Archdeacon, with a low gurgle, and the next moment he was gabbling in a quick undertone through certain words that seemed to be all one word :'O-Lord-Jesus-Christ-bless-Thou-this -creature-of-a-waxen-taper-that—on-what-place-soever-it-be-lighted-or-set-the-devil-may-flee-from-that-habitation-and-no-more-disquiet-them-that-serve—Thee ! "

After the penultimate word there was a short pause, and at the last word there was the sharp crack of the flint, and in an instant the candle was lighted.

Then the Archdeacon turned towards the bed and exchanged some words with his daughter. The bed was a mahogany four-post one, with legs like rocks, a hood like a pulpit soundingboard, and tapestry curtains like a muddy avalanche. The Archdeacon—he was a small man, with a face like a russet apple—leaned against one of the bed-posts, and said, in a tone of banter

" Why, Thorkell, and if you're for indulging custom, how comes it that you have not hung up your hat ? "

"My hat—my hat !" said Thorkell, in perplexity.

" Aw, now," said the midwife, "the master's as great a man as any in the island at laughing at the men craythurs that hang up their hats over the straw to fright the boaganes, as the old woman said."

Thorkell's laughter instantly burst forth to justify the midwife's statement.

" Ha, ha ! Hang up my hat ! Well now, well now ! Drives away the black spirits from the birth-bed—isn't that what the dunces say?

It's twenty years since I saw the like of it done and I'd forgotten the old custom. Must look funny, very, the good man's hat perched up on the bed-post? What d'ye say, Archdeacon shall we have it up? Just for the laugh, you know, ha, ha ! "

In another moment Thorkell was gone from the room, and his titter could be heard from the stairs ; it ebbed away and presently flowed back again, and Thorkell was once more by the bedside, laughing immoderately, and perching his angular soft hat on the topmost knob of one of the posts at the foot of the bed.

Then Thorkell and the Archdeacon went down to the little room that had once been Gilcrist's room, looking over the Curragh to the sea.

Before daybreak next morning a man child was born to Thorkell Mylrea, and an heir to the five hundred acres of Ballamona.


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Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2003