[from 'The Manxman' 1894]
LITTLE curly Pete; with the broad, bare feet, the tousled black head, the jacket half way up his back like a waistcoat with sleeves, and the hole in his trousers where the tail of his shirt should have been, was Peter Quilliam, and he was the natural son of Peter Christian. In the days when that punctilious worthy set himself to observe the doings of his elder brother at Ballure, he found it convenient to make an outwork of the hedge in front of the thatched house that stood nearest. Two persons lived in the cottage, father and daughter -Tom Quilliam, usually called Black Tom, and Bridget Quilliam, getting the name of Bridget Black Tom.
The man was a short, gross creature, with an enormous head and a big, open mouth, showing broken teeth that were black with the juice of tobacco. The girl was by common judgment and report a gawk-a great, slow-eyed, comely-looking, comfortable, easy-going gawk. Black Tom was a thatcher, and with his hair poking its way through the holes in his straw hat, he tramped the island in pursuit of his calling. This kept him from home for days together, and in that fact Peter Christian, while shadowing the morality of his brother, found his own opportunity.
When the child was born, neither the thatcher nor his daughter attempted to father it. Peter Christian paid twenty pounds to the one and eighty to the other in Manx pound-notes, the boys daubed their door to show that the house was dishonoured, and that was the end of everything.
The girl went through her " censures" silently, or with only one comment. She had borrowed the sheet in which she appeared in church from Miss Christian of Ballawhaine, and when she took it back, the good soul of the sweet lady thought to improve the occasion.
"I was wondering, Bridget," she said gravely, " what you were thinking of when you stood with Bella and Liza before the congregation last Sunday morning "-two other Magdalenes had done penance by Bridget's side.
"'Deed, mistress," said the girl, "I was thinkin' there wasn't a sheet at one of them to match mine for whiteness. I'd 'a been ashamed to be seen in the like of theirs."
Bridget may have been a gawk, but she did two things which were not gawkish. Putting the eighty greasy notes into the foot of an old stocking, she sewed them up in the ticking of her bed, and then christened her baby Peter. The money was for the child if she should not live to rear him, and the name was her way of saying that a man's son was his son in spite of law or devil.
After that she kept both herself and her child by day labour in the fields, weeding and sowing potatoes, and following at the tail of the reapers, for sixpence a day dry days, and fourpence all weathers. She might have badgered the heir of Ballawhaine, but she never did so. That person came into his inheritance, got himself elected member for Ramsey in the House of Keys, married Nessy Taubman, daughter of the rich brewer, and became the father of another son. Such were the doings in the big house down in the valley, while up in the thatched cottage behind the water-trough, on potatoes and herrings and barley bonnag, lived Bridget and her little Pete.
Pete's earliest recollections were of a boy who lived at the beautiful white house with the big fuchsia, by the turn of the road over the bridge that crossed the glen. This was Philip Christian, half a year older than himself, although several inches shorter, with long yellow hair and rosy cheeks, and dressed in a velvet suit of knickerbockers. Pete worshipped him in his simple way, hung about him, fetched and carried for him, and looked up to him as a marvel of wisdom and goodness and pluck.
His first memory of Philip was of sleeping with him, snuggled up by his side in the dark, hushed and still in a narrow bed with iron ends to it, and of leaping up in the morning and laughing. Philip's father-a tall, white gentleman, who never laughed at all, and only smiled sometimes-had found him in the road in the even- ing waiting for his mother to come home from the fields, that he might light the fire in the cottage, and running about in the meantime to keep himself warm, and not too hungry.
His second memory was of Philip guiding him round the drawing-room (over thick carpets, on which his bare feet made no noise), and showing him the pictures on the walls, and telling him what they meant. One (an engraving of St. John, with a death's-head and a crucifix) was, according to this grim and veracious guide, a picture of a brigand who killed his victims, and always skinned their skulls with a cross-handled dagger. After that his memories of Philip and himself were as two gleams of sunshine which mingle and become one.
Philip was a great reader of noble histories. He found them, frayed and tattered, at the bottom of a trunk that had tin corners and two padlocks, and stood in the room looking towards the har- bour where his mother's father, the old sailor, had slept. One of them was his special favourite, and he used to read it aloud to Pete. It told of the doings of the Carrasdhoo men. - They were a bold band of desperadoes, the terror of all the island. Sometimes they worked in the fields at ploughing, and reaping, and stacking, the same as common practical men; and sometimes they lived in houses, just like the house by the water-trough. But when the wind was rising in the nor-nor-west, and there was a taste of the brine on your, lips, they would be up, and say, " The sea's calling us-we must be going." Then they would live in rocky caves of the coast where nobody could reach them, and there would be fires lit at night in tar-barrels, and shouting, and singing, and carousing; and after that there would be ships' rudders, and figure-heads, and masts coming up with the tide, and sometimes dead bodies on the beach of sailors they had drowned-only foreign ones though- hundreds and tons of them. But that was long ago, the Carras- dhoo men were dead, and the glory of their day was departed.
One quiet evening, after an awesome reading of this brave history, Philip, sitting on his haunches at the gable, with Pete like another white frog beside him, said quite suddenly, "Hush ! What's that?" "I wonder," said Pete.
There was never a sound in the air above the rustle of a leaf, and Pete's imagination could carry him no further.
"Pete," said Philip, with awful gravity, "the sea's calling me." "And me," said Pete solemnly.
Early that night the two lads were down at the most desolate part of Port Mooar, in a cave under the scraggy black rocks of Gob- ny-Garvain, kindling a fire of gorse and turf inside the remains of a broken barrel.
"See that tremendous sharp rock below low water?" said Philip. "Don't I, though?" said Pete.
There was never a rock the size of a currycomb between them and the line. of the sky.
"That's what we call a reef," said Philip. "Wait a bit and you'll see the ships go splitting on top of it like-like "
" Like a tay-pot," said Pete.
"We'll save the women, though," said Philip. " Sball we save the women, Pete? We always do."
"Aw, yes, the women-and the boys," said Pete thoughtfully. Philip bad his doubts about the boys, but he would not quarrel. It was nearly dark, and growing very cold. The lads croodled down by the crackling blaze, and tried to forget that they had for- gotten tea-time.
" We never has to mind a bit of hungry," said Philip stoutly. "Never a ha'p'orth," said Pete.
" Only when the job's done we have hams and flitches and things for supper."
"Aw, yes,, ateing and drinking to the full." "Rum, Pete, we always drinks rum." "We has to," said Pete.
"None of your tea," said Philip.
" Coorse not,, none of your ould grannie's two-penny tay," said Pete.
It was quite dark by this time, and the tide was rising rapidly. There was not a star in the sky, and not a light on the sea except g the revolving light of the lightship far away. The boys crept closer together and began to think of home. Philip remembered Aunty Nan. When he had stolen away on hands and knees under the parlour window she had been sewing at his new check night-shirt.
A night-shirt for a Carrasdhoo man had seemed to be ridiculous then; but where was Aunty Nannie now? Pete remembered his mother-she would be racing round the houses and crying ; and he had visions of Black Tom-he would be racing round also and swearing.
"Shouldn't we sing something, Phil?" said Pete, with a gurgle in his threat.
"Sing!" said Philip, with as much scorn as he could summon, and give them warning we're watching for them ! Well, you are a pretty, Mr. Pete! But just you wait till the ships goes wrecking on the rocks-I mean the reefs-and the dead men's coming up like corks-hundreds and ninety and dozens of them; my jove ! yes, then you'll hear me singing."
The darkness deepened, and the-voice of the sea began to moan through the back of the cave, the gorse crackled no longer; and the turf burned in a dull red glow. Night with its awfulness had come down, and the boys were cut off from everything.
"They don't seem to be coming-not yet," said Philip, in a. husky whisper.
"Maybe it's the same as fishing," said Pete; "sometimes you catch and sometimes you don't."
"That's it," said Philip eagerly, "generally you don't-and then you both haves to go home and come again," he added nervously. But neither of the boys stirred. Outside the glow of the fire the blackness looked terrible. Pete nuzzled up to Philip's side, and, being untroubled by imaginative fears, soon began to feel drowsy. The sound of his measured breathing startled Philip with the terror of loneliness.
"Honour bright, Mr. Pete," he faltered, nudging the head on his shoulder, and trying to keep his voice from shaking; " you call yourself a second mate, and leaving all the work to me ! "
The second mate was penitent, but in less than half a minute more he was committing the same offence again. " It isn't no use," he said, "I'm that sleepy, you never seen."
"Then let's both take the watch below i'stead," said Philip, and they proceeded to stretch themselves out by the fire together.
" Just lave it to me," said Pete; " I'll hear them if they come in the night. I'll always does. I'm sleeping that light it's shocking. Why, sometimes I hear Black Tom when he comes home tipsy. I've done it times."
"We'll have carpets to lie on to-morrow, not stones," said Philip, wriggling on a rough one; "rolls of carpets-kidaminstrel ones." They settled themselves side by side as close to each other as they could creep, and tried not to hear the surging and sighing of the sea. Then came a tremulous whimper
" Pete! " "What's that î"
" Don't you never say your prayers when you take the watch below? "
" Sometimes we does, when mother isn't too tired, and the ould man's middling drunk and quiet."
"Then don't you like to then?"
"Aw, yes, though, I'm liking it scandalous."
The wreckers agreed to say their prayers, and got up again and said them, knee to knee, with their two little faces to the fire, and then stretched themselves out afresh.
" Pete, where's your hand." " Here you are, Phil."
In another minute, under the solemn darkness ofthe night, broken only by the smouldering fire, amid the thunderous quake of the cavern after every beat of the waves on the beach, the Carrasdhoo men were asleep.
Sometime in the dark reaches before the dawn Pete leapt up with a start. " What's that l " he cried, in a voice of fear.
But Philip was still in the mists of sleep, and, feeling the cold, he only. whimpered, " Cover me up, Pete."
"Phil!" cried Pete, in an affrighted whisper. "Cover me up," drawled Philip.
" I thought it was Black Tom," said Pete.
There was some confused bellowing outside the cave.
" My goodness grayshers ! " came in a terrible voice, " it's them, though, the pair of them ! Impozzible ! who says its impozzible It's themselves I'm telling you, ma'm. Guy heng ! The woman's mad, putting a scream out of herself like yonder. Safe? Coorse they're safe, bad luck to the young wastrels ! You're for putting up a prayer for your own one. Eh ? Well, I'm for hommering mine. The dirts ! Weaned only yesterday, and fetching a descent man out of his bed to find them. A fire at them, too! Well, it was the fire that found them. Pull the boat up, boys."
Philip was half awake by this time. " They've come," he whispered. " The ships is come, they're on the reef. Oh, dear me
Best go and meet them. P'raps they won't kill us if-if we-Oh, dear me ! "
Then the wreckers, hand in hand, quaking and whimpering, stepped out to the mouth of the cave. At the neat moment Philip found himself snatched up into the arms of Aunty Nan, who kissed him and cried over him, and rammed a great chunk of sweet cake into his cheek. Pete was faring differently. Under the leathern belt of Black Tom, who was thrashing him for both of them, he was howling like the sea in a storm.
Thus the Carrasdhoo men came home by the light of early morning-Pete skipping before the belt and bellowing; and Philip holding a piece of the cake at his teeth to comfort him.
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008