[from Hall Caine The Deemster]



TWENTY times that night Thorkell devised expedients to break the web of fate. At first his thoughts were of revengeful defiance. By fair means or foul the woman Kerruish should suffer. She should be turned out of house and home. She should tramp the roads as a mendicant. He would put his foot on her neck. Then they would see what her uncanny threats had come to.

He tried this unction for his affrighted spirit, and put it aside as useless. No, no; he would conciliate the woman. He would settle an annuity of five pounds a year upon her; he would give her the snug gate cottage of old Ballamona to live in; his wife should send her warm blankets in winter, and sometimes a pound of tea, such as old folks love. Then must her imprecation fall impotent, and his own fate be undisturbed.

Thorkell's bedroom in his new house on Slieu Dhoo looked over the Curraghs to the sea. As the day dawned he opened the window, and thrust out his head to drink of the cool morning air. The sun was rising over the land behind, a strong breeze was sweeping over the marshes from the shore, and the white curves of the breakers to the west reflected here and there the glow of the eastern sky. With the salt breath of the sea in his nostrils, it seemed to Thorkell a pitiful thing that a man should be a slave to a mere idea; a thing for shame and humiliation that the sneezing of an old woman should disturb the peace of a strong man. Superstition was the bugbear of the Manxman, but it would die of shame at its sheer absurdity, only that it was pampered by the law. Toleration for superstition ! Every man who betrayed faith in omens or portents, or charms or spells, or the power of the evil eye, should be instantly clapped in the Castle. It was but right that a rabid dog should be muzzled.

Thorkell shut the window, closed the shutters, threw off his clothes, and went back to bed. In the silence and the darkness, his thoughts took yet another turn. What madness it was, what pertness and unbelief, to reject that faith in which the best and wisest of all ages had lived and died ! Had not omens and portents, and charms and spells, and the evil eye been believed in in all ages ? What midget of modern days should now arise with a superior smile and say, " Behold, this is folly : Saul of Israel and Saul of Tarsus, and Samuel and Solomon rose up and lay down in folly."

Thorkell leapt out of bed, sweating from every pore. The old woman, Kerruish, should be pensioned; she should live in the cosy cottage at the gates of Ballamona ; she should have blankets and tea and many a snug comfort; her daughter should be brought back and married-yes, married-to some honest fellow.

The lark was loud in the sky, the rooks were stirring in the lofty ash, the swallows pecking at the lattice, when sleep came at length to Thorkell's blood-shot eyes, and he stretched himself in a short and fitful slumber. He awoke with a start. The lusty rap of Hommy. beg was at the door of his room. There was no itinerant postman, and it was one of Hommy-beg's daily duties to go to the post-office. He had been there this morning, and was now returned with a letter for his master.

Thorkell took the letter with nervous fingers. He had recognised the seal-it was the seal of the insular Government. The letter came from Castle Rushen. He broke the seal and read :"


" SiR,-I am instructed by his Excellency to beg you to come to Castletown without delay, and to report your arrival at the Castle to Madam Churchill, who will see you on behalf of the Duchess.

" I have the honour to be, &c."

The letter was signed by the Secretary to the Governor.

What did it mean? Thorkell could make nothing of it but that in some way it boded ill. In a bewildered state of semi-consciousness he ordered that a horse should be got ready and brought round to the front. Half an hour later he had risen from an untouched breakfast and was seated in the saddle.

He rode past Tynwald Hill and through Foxdale to the south. Twenty times he drew up and half reined his horse in another direction. But he went on again. He could turn about at any time. He never turned about. At two o'clock that day he stood before the low gate of the Castle and pulled at the great clanging bell.

He seemed to be expected, and was immediately led to a chamber on the north of the courtyard. The room was small and low ; it was dimly lighted by two lancet windows set deep into walls that seemed to be three yards thick. The floor was covered with a rush matting; a harp stood near the fireplace. A lady rose as Thorkell entered. She was elderly, but her dress was youthful. Her waist was short; her embroidered skirt was very long; she wore spangled shoes, and her hair was done into a knot on the top of her head.

Thorkell stood before her with the mien of a culprit. She smiled and motioned him to a seat, and sat herself.

" You have heard of the death of one of our two Deemsters ? " she asked.

Thorkell's face whitened, and he bowed his head.

"A successor must soon be appointed, and the Deemster is always a Manxman ; he must know the language of the common people." Thorkell's face wore a bewildered expression. The lady's manner was very suave.

" The appointment is the gift of the Lord of the island, and the Countess is asked to suggest a name,"

Thorkell's face lightened. He had regained all his composure.

" The Countess has heard a good account of you, Mr. Mylrea. She is told that by your great industry and-wisdom-you have raised yourself in life-become rich, in fact."

The lady's voice dropped to a tone of most insinuating suavity. Thorkell stammered some commonplace.

"Hush, Mr. Mylrea; you shall not depreciate yourself. The Countess has heard that you are a man of enterprise-one who does not begrudge the penny that makes the pound."

Thorkell saw it all. He was to be made Deemster, but he was to buy his appointment. The Countess had lost money of late, and the swashbuckler court she kept had lately seen some abridgment of its gaieties.

"To be brief, Mr. Mylrea, the Countess has half an intention of suggesting your name for the post, but before doing so she wished me to see in what way your feelings lie with regard to it."

Thorkell's little eyes twinkled, and his lips took an upward curve. He placed one hand over his breast and bent his head.

" My feelings, madam, lie in one way only the way of gratitude," he said meekly.

The lady's face broadened, and there was a pause.

" It is a great distinction, Mr. Mylrea," said the lady, and she drew her breath inwards. "The greater my gratitude," said Thorkell. "And how far would you go to show this gratitude to the Countess?"

" Any length, madam," said Thorkell, and he rose and bowed.

The Countess is at present at Bath-"

" I would go so far, and-farther, madam, farther," said Thorkell, and as he spoke he thrust his right hand deep into his pocket, and there-by what accident may not be said-it touched some coins that chinked.

There was another pause, and then the lady rose and held out her hand, and said in a significant tone

" I think, sir, I may already venture to hail you as Deemster of Man."

Thorkell cantered home in great elevation of soul. The milestones fell behind him one after one, and he did not feel the burden of the way. His head was in his breast; his body was bent over his saddle-bow; again and again a trill of light laughter came from his lips. Where were his dreams now, his omens, his spells, and the power of the evil eye ? He was judge of hisisland. He was master of his fate.

Passing through St. John's, he covered the bleak top of the hill, and turned down towards the shady copse of Kirk Michael. Where the trees were thickest in the valley he drew rein by a low, long house that stood back to the road. It was the residence of the Bishop of the island, but it was now empty. The bishopric had been vacant these five years, and under the heavy rains from the hills and the strong winds from the sea the old house had fallen into decay.

Thorkell sat in the saddle under the tall elms in the dim light, and his mind was busy with many thoughts. His memory went back with something akin to tenderness to the last days of old Ewan his father; to his brother, Gilcrist, and then, by a sudden transition, to the incidents of that morning at Castle Rushen. How far in the past that morning seemed to be!

The last rook had cawed out its low guttural note, and the last gleam of daylight died off between the thick bows of the dark trees that pattered lightly overhead, as Thorkell set off afresh.

When he arrived at Ballamona the night was dark. The Archdeacon was sitting with his daughter, who had not left her room that day. Thorkell, still booted and spurred, ran like a squirrel up the stairs and into the bedroom. In twenty hot words that were fired off like a cloud of small shot from a blunderbuss, Thorkell told what had occurred. His wife's white face showed no pleasure and betrayed no surprise. Her silence acted on Thorkell as a rebuke, and when her eyes rested on his face he turned his own eyes aside. The Archdeacon was almost speechless, but his look of astonishment was eloquent, and when Thorkell left the room he followed him out.

At supper the Archdeacon's manner was that of deep amity.

"They are prompt to appoint a Deemster," he said, " Has it not struck you as strange that the bishopric has been vacant so long?"

Thorkell laughed a little over his plate, and answered that it was strange.

"Maybe it only needs that a name should be suggested," continued the Archdeacon. " That is to say, suggested by a man of influence, a man of position-by the Deemster, for instance."

"Just that," said Thorkell with a titter. Then there was an interchange of further amity. When the two men rose from the table the Archdeacon said, with a conscious smile, " Of course, if you should occur-if you should ever think-if, that is, the Deemster should ever suggest a name for the bishopric of course, he will remember that-that blood, in short, is thicker than water-ta fuill ny s'chee na ushtey, as the Manxman says."

" I will remember it," said Thorkell in a significant tone and with a faint chuckle. Satisfied with that day's work, with himself, and with the world, Thorkell then went off to bed, and lay down in peace and content, and slept the sleep of the just.

In due course Thorkell Mylrea became Deemster Ballamona.

He entered upon his duties after the briefest study of the Statute Laws. A Manx judge dispensed justice chiefly by the Breast Laws, the unwritten code locked in his own breast, and supposed to be handed down from Deemster to Deemster. The popular superstition served Thorkell in good stead: there was none, to challenge his knowledge of Jurisprudence.

As soon as he was settled in his office he began to make inquiries about his brother Gilcrist. He learned that after leaving Cambridge Gilcrist had taken deacon's orders, and had become tutor to the son of an English nobleman, and afterwards chaplain to the nobleman's household. Thorkell addressed him a letter and received a reply, and this was the first intercourse of the brothers since the death of old Ewan. Gilcrist had lately married; he held a small living on one of the remote moors of Yorkshire : he loved his people and was beloved by them. Thorkell wrote again and again, and yet again, and his letters ran through every tone of remonstrance and entreaty. The end of it was that the Deemster paid yet another visit to the lady deputy at Castle Rushen, and the rumour passed over the island that the same potent influence that had made Thorkell a Deemster was about to make his brother the Bishop of Man.

Then the Archdeacon came down in white wrath to Ballamona, and reminded his son-in-law of his many obligations, touched on benefits forgot, hinted at dark sayings and darker deeds, mentioned, with a significant accent, the girl Mally Kerruish, protested that from causes not to be named he had lost the esteem of his clergy and the reverence of his flock, and wound up with the touching assurance that on that very morning, as he rode from Andreas, he had overheard a burly Manxman say to the tawny-headed fellow who walked with him-both of them the scabbiest sheep on the hills-" There goes the pazon that sold his daughter and bought her husband."

Thorkell listened to the torrent of reproaches, and then said quietly, as he turned on his heel, "Near is my shirt, but nearer is my skin."

The Deemster's wife held up her head no more. After the christening she rarely left her room. Her cheeks grew thinner, paler they could not grow, and her meek eyes lost their faint lustre. She spoke little, and her interest in life seemed to, be all but gone. There was the same abject submission to her husband, but she saw less of him day by day. Only the sight of her babe, when Kerry brought it to be nursed, restored to her face the light of a fleeting joy. If it stayed too long at her breast, if it cried, if its winsome ways made her to laugh outright, the swift recoil of other feelings saddened her to melancholy, and she would put the child from her with a sigh. This went on for several months, and meantime the Deemster was too deeply immersed in secular affairs to make serious note of the shadow that hung over his house, " Goll sheese ny lhiargagh-she's going down the steep places," said Kerry.

It was winter when Gilcrist Mylrea was appointed to reach the island, but he wrote that his wife's health was failing her, that it was not unlikely that she was to bear a child, and that he preferred to postpone his journey until the spring. Before the gorse bushes on the mountains had caught their new spears of green, and before the fishermen of Peeltown had gone down to the sea for their first mackerel, Thorkell's wife was lying in her last illness. She sent for her husband and bade him farewell. The Deemster saw no danger, and he laughed at her meek adieu. She was soon to be the mother of another of his children-that was all. But she shook her head when he rallied her, and when he lifted the little creeping, cooing, babbling Ewan from the floor to his mother's bed, and laughed and held up his long, lean, hairy finger before the baby face and asked the little one with a puff how he would like a little sister, the white face on the pillow twitched and fell, and the meek eyes filled, and the shadow was over all.

"Good-bye, Thorkell, and for baby's sake-" But a shrill peal of Thorkell's laughter rang through the chamber, and at the next instant he was gone from the room.

That day the wife of the Deemster passed beyond the sorrows of the life that had no joys. The angels of life and death had come with linked hands to the new homestead of Ballamona, and the young mother had died in giving birth to a girl.

When the Deemster heard what had happened his loud scream rang through every room of the house. His soul was in ferment; he seemed to be appalled and to be stricken not with sorrow, but with fright and horror.

" She's dead; why, she's dead, she's dead," he cried hysterically; "why did not somebody tell me that she would die? "

The Deemster buried his wife by the side of old Ewan, under the elder tree that grew by the wall of the churchyard that stands over by the sea. He summoned no mourners, and few stood with him by the open grave. During the short funeral his horse was tied to the cross-timbers of the lych-gate, and while the earth was still falling in hollow thuds from the sexton's spade Thorkell got into the saddle and rode away.

Before sunset he waited by the wooden landing jetty at Derby Haven. The old sea tub, the King Orry, made the port that day, and disembarked her passengers. Among them was the new Bishop of Man, Gilcrist Mylrea. He looked much older for the six years he had been away. His tall figure stooped heavily; his thick hair fell in wavelets on his shoulders, and was already sprinkled with grey; his long cheeks were deeply lined. As he stepped from the boat on to the jetty he carried something very tenderly in his arms. He seemed to be alone.

The brothers met with looks of constraint and bewilderment.

" Where is your wife? " asked Thorkell. "She is gone," said Gilcrist. " I have nothing left of her but this," and he looked down at the burden at his breast.

It was a baby-boy. Thorkell's face whitened, and terror was in his eyes.


back index next


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