[from Hall Caine The Deemster]
IN the dead waste of that night the old walls of Ballamona echoed to the noise of hurryin feet. Thorkell himself ran like a squirrel hither and thither, breaking out now and again into shrill peals of hysterical laughter while the women took the kettle to the room above, and employed themselves there in sundry mysterious ordinances on which n male busybody might intrude. Thorkell dived down into the kitchen, and rooted about in the meal casks for the oaten cake, and into the larder for the cheese, and into the cupboard for the bread-basket known as the "peck."
Hommy-beg, who had not been permitted to go home that night, had coiled himself in the settle drawn up before the kitchen fire, and was now snoring lustily. Thorkell roused him, and set him to break the oatcake and cheese into small pieces into the peck, and, when this was done, to scatter it broadcast on the staircase and landing, and on the garden -path immediately in front of the house, while he himself carried a similar peck, piled up like a pyramid with similar pieces of oatcake and cheese, to the room whence there issued at intervals a thin, small voice, that was the sweetest music that had ever yet fallen on Thorkell's ear.
What high commotion did the next day witness ! For the first time since that lurid day when old Ewan Mylrea was laid under the elder-tree in the churchyard by the sea, Ballamona kept open house. The itinerant poor, who made the circuit of the houses, came again, and lifted the latch without knocking, and sat at the fire without being asked, and ate of the oatcake and the cheese. And upstairs, where a meek white face looked out with an unfamiliar smile from behind sheets that were hardly more white, the robustious states-people from twenty miles around sat down in their odorous atmosphere of rude health and high spirits, and noise and laughter, to drink their glass of new-brewed jough, and to spread on their oaten bread a thick crust of the rumbutter butter that stood in the great blue china bowl on the little table near the bed-head. And Thorkell-how nimbly be hopped about, and encouraged his visitors to drink, and rallied them if they ceased to eat !
" Come, man, come," he said a score of times, " shameful leaving is worse than shameful eating-eat, drink! "
And they ate, and they drank, and they laughed, and they sang, till the bedroom reeked with the fumes of a pot-house, and the confusion of tongues therein was worse than at the foot of Babel.
Throughout three long jovial weeks the visitors came and went, and every day the blithe bread was piled in the peck for the poor of the earth, and scattered on the paths for the good spirits of the air. And when people jested upon this, and said that not since the old days of their grandfathers had the boaganes and the fairies been so civilly treated, Thorkell laughed noisily, and said what great fun it was that they should think he was superstitious, and that custom must be indulged with custom, or custom would weep. Then came the christening, and to this ceremony the whole country round was invited. Thorkell was now a man of consequence, and the neighbours high and low trooped in with presents for the young Christian.
Kerry, the midwife, who was nurse as well, carried the child to church, and the tiny red burden lay cooing softly at her breast in a very hillock of white swaddlings. Thorkell walked behind, his little eyes twinkling under his bushy eyebrows; and on his arm his wife leaned heavily after every feeble step, her white waxwork face bright with the smile of first motherhood.
The Archdeacon met the company at the west porch, and they gathered for the baptism about the font in the aisle : half-blind Kerry with the infant, Thorkell and his young wife, the two godfathers, the Vicar-General and the Water Bailiff of Peeltown, and the godmother, the Water Bailiff's wife, and behind this circle a mixed throng of many sorts. After the gospel and the prayers, the Archdeacon, in his white surplice, took the infant into his hands and called on the godparents to name the child, and they answered Ewan. Then as the drops fell over the wee blinking eyes, and all voices were hushed in silence and awe, there came to the open porch and looked into the dusky church a little fleecy lamb, all soft and white and beautiful. It lifted its innocent and dazed face where it stood in the morning sunshine, on the grass of the graves, and bleated and bleated, as if it had strayed from its mother and was lost.
The Archdeacon paused with his drooping finger half raised over the other innocent face at his breast, Thorkell's features twitched, and the tears ran down the white cheeks of his wife.
In an instant the baby-lamb had hobbled away, and before the Archdeacon had restored the child to the arms of blind Kerry, or mumbled the last of the prayers, there came the hum of many voices from the distance. The noise came rapidly nearer, and as it approached it broke into a tumult of men's deep shouts and women's shrill cries.
The iron hasp of the lych-gate to the churchyard was heard to chink, and at the same moment there was the sound of hurrying footsteps on the paved way. The company that had gathered about the font broke up abruptly, and made for the porch with looks of inquiry and amazement. There, at the head of a mixed throng of the riff-raff of the parish, bareheaded men, women with bold faces, and children with naked feet, a man held a young woman by the arm and pulled her towards the church. He was a stalwart fellow, stern of feature, iron grey, and he gripped the girl's bare brown arm like a vice.
" Make way there ! Come, mistress, and no struggling," he shouted, and he tugged the girl after him, and then pushed her before him.
She was young-twenty at most. Her comely face was drawn hard with lines of pain ; her hazel eyes flashed with wrath; and where her white sun-bonnet had fallen back from her head on to her shoulders, the knots of her dark hair, draggled and tangled in the scuffle, tumbled in masses over her neck and cheeks.
It was Mally Kerruish, and the man who held her and forced her along was the parish sumner, the church constable.
" Make way, I tell you ! " shouted the sumner to the throng that crowded upon him, and into the porch, and through the company that had come for the christening. When the Archdeacon stepped down from the side of the font, the simmer with his prisoner drew up on the instant, and the noisy crew stood and was silent.
" I have brought her for her oath, your reverence," said the sumner, dropping his voice and his head together.
"Who accuses her?" the Archdeacon asked. "Her old mother," said the sumner; "here she is."
From the middle of the throng behind him the sumner drew out an elderly woman with a hard and wizened face. Her head was bare, her eyes were quick and restless, her lips firm and long, her chin was broad and heavy. The woman elbowed her way forward; but when she was brought face to face with the Archdeacon, and he asked her if she charged her daughter, she looked around before answering; and seeing her girl Mally standing there with her white face, under the fire of fifty pairs of eyes, all her resolution seemed to leave her.
"It isn't natheral, I know," she said, "a mother speaking up agen her child," and with that her hard mouth softened, her quick eyes reddened and filled, and her hands went up to her face. "But nature goes down with a flood when you're looking to have another belly to fill, and not a shilling at you this fortnight."
The girl stood without a word, and not one streak of colour came to her white cheeks as her mother spoke.
"She denied it and denied it, and said no and no ; but leave it to a mother to know what way her girl's going."
There was a low murmur among the people at the back and some whispering. The girl's keen ear caught it, and she turned her head over her shoulder with a defiant glance.
"Who is the man?" said the Archdeacon, recalling her with a touch of his finger on her arm.
She did not answer at first, and he repeated the question.
" Who is the guilty man? " he said in a voice more stern.
"It's not true. Let me go," said the girl in a quick undertone.
"Who is the partner of your sin? "
"It's not true, I say. Let me go, will you?" and the girl struggled feebly in the Sumner's grip.
"Bring her to the altar," said the Archdeacon. He faced about and walked towards the communion and entered it. The company followed him and drew up outside the communion-rail. He took a Testament from the reading-desk and stepped towards the girl. There was a dead hush.
" The Church provides a remedy for slander," he said in a cold, clear tone. " If you are not guilty, swear that you are innocent, and he who tampers with your good name may beware." With that the Archdeacon held the Testament towards the girl. She made no show of taking it. He thrust it into her hand. At the touch of the book she gave a faint cry and stepped a pace backward, the Testament falling open on to the form beneath.
Then the murmur of the bystanders rose again. The girl heard it once more, and dropped on her knees and covered her face, and cried in a tremulous voice that echoed over the church, " Let me go, let me go."
The company that came for the christening had walked up the aisle. Blinking Kerry stood apart, hushing the infant in her arms ; it made a fretful whimper. Thorkell stood behind, pawing the paved path with a restless foot. His wife had made her way to the girl's side, her eyes overflowing with compassion.
"Take her to prison at the Peel," said the Archdeacon, "and keep her there until she confesses the name of her paramour." At that Thorkell's wife dropped to her knees beside the kneeling girl, and putting one arm about her neck, raised the other against the sumner, and cried, "No, no, no; she will confess."
There was a pause and a long hush. Mally let her hands fall from her face, and turned her eyes full on the eyes of the young mother at her side. In dead silence the two rose to their feet together.
"Confess his name; whoever he is, he does not deserve that you should suffer for him as well," said the wife of Thorkell Mylrea, and as she spoke she touched the girl's white forehead with her pale lips.
" Do you ask that? " said Mally with a strange quietness.
For one swift instant the eyes of these women seemed to see into each other's heart. The face of Thorkell's wife became very pale ; she grew faint, and clutched the communion rail as she staggered back.
At the next instant Mally Kerruish was being hurried by the sumner-down the aisle; the noisy concourse that had come with them went away with them, and in a moment more the old church was empty save for the company that had gathered about the font.
There was a great feast at Ballamona that day. The new house was finished, and the young Christian, Ewan Mylrea, of Ballamona, was the first to enter it ; for was it not to be his house, and his children's, and his children's children's ?
Thorkell's wife did not join the revels, but in her new home she went back to her bed. 'The fatigue and excitement of the day had been too much for her. Thorkell himself sat in his place and laughed noisily and drank much. Towards sunset the sumner came to say that the girl who had been taken to prison at the Peel had confessed, and was now at large. The Archdeacon got up and went out of the room. Thorkell called lustily on his guests to drink again, and one stupefied old crony clambered to his feet and demanded silence for a toast.
"To the father of the girl's by-blow," he shouted, when the glasses were charged; and then the company laughed till the roof rang, and above all was the shrill laugh of Thorkell Mylrea. Presently the door opened again, and the Archdeacon, with a long grave face, stood on the threshold and beckoned to Thorkell at the head of his table. Thorkell went out with him, and when they returned together a little later, and the master of Ballamona resumed his seat, he laughed yet more noisily than before, and drank yet more liquor.
On the outside of Ballamona that night an old woman, hooded and taped, knocked at the door. The loud laughter and the ranting songs from within came out to her where she stood in the darkness, under the silent stars. When the door was opened by Hommy-beg the woman asked for Mylrea Ballamona. Hommy-beg repulsed her, and would have shut the door in her face. She called again, and again, and yet again, and at last, by reason of her importunity, Hommy-beg went in and told Thorkell, who got up and followed him out. The Archdeacon heard the message, and left the room at the same moment.
Outside on the gravel path, the old woman stood with the light of the lamp that burned in the hall on her wizened face. It was Mrs. Kerruish, the mother of Mally.
"It's fine times you're having of it, Master Mylrea," she said, "and you, too, your reverence ; but what about me and my poor girl?"
"It was yourself that did it, woman," said Thorkell ; and he tried to laugh, but under the stars his laugh fell short.
" Me, you say? Me, was it for all? May the good God judge between us, Master Mylrea. D'ye know what it is that's happened? My poor girl's gone."
"Eh, gone-gone off-gone to hide her shameful face ; God help her."
"Better luck," said Thorkell, and a short gurgle rattled in his dry throat.
"Luck, you call it ? Luck ! Take care, Ballamona."
The Archdeacon interposed, " Come, no threats, my good woman," he said, and waved his hand in protestation. " The Church has done you justice in this matter."
"Threats, your reverence? Justice? Is it justice to punish the woman and let the man go free ? What ! the woman to stand penance six Sabbaths by the church-door of six parishes, and the man to pay his dirty money, six pounds to you and three to me, and then no mortal to name his name !"
The old woman rummaged in the pocket at her side and pulled out a few coins. "Here, take them back; I'm no Judas to buy my own girl. Here, I say, take them ! "
Thorkell had thrust his hands in his pockets, and was making a great show of laughing boisterously.
The old woman stood silent for a moment, and her pale face turned livid. Then by a sudden impulse she lifted her eyes and her two trembling arms. " God in Heaven," she said in a hoarse whisper, "let Thy wrath rest on this man's head ; make this house that he has built for himself and for his children a curse to him and them and theirs ; bring it to pass that no birth come to it but death come with it, and so on and on until Thou hast done justice between him and me."
Thorkell's laughter stopped suddenly. As the woman spoke his face quivered, and his knees shook perceptibly under him. Then he took her by the arms and clutched her convulsively. "Woman, woman, what are you saying?" he cried in his shrill treble. She disengaged herself and went away into the night.
For a moment Thorkell tramped the hall with nervous footsteps. The Archdeacon stood speechless. Then the sound of laughter and of song came from the room they had left, and Thorkell flung in on the merry-makers.
"Go home, go home, every man of you ! Away with you!" he shouted hysterically, and then dropped like a log into a chair.
One by one, with many wise shakes of many sapient heads, the tipsy revellers broke up and went off, leaving the master of Ballamona alone in that chamber, dense with dead smoke and noisome with the fumes of liquor.