[from 'The Manxman' 1894]

IV

 

PHILIP left home for school at King William's by Castletown, and then Pete had a hard upbringing. His mother was tender enough, and there were good souls like Aunty Nan to show pity to both of them. But life went like a springless bogey, nevertheless. Sin itself is often easier than simpleness to pardon and, condone. It takes a soft heart to feel tenderly towards a soft head.

Poor Pete's head seemed soft enough and to spare. No power and no persuasion could teach him to read and write. He went to school at the old schoolhouse by the church in Maughold village. The schoolmaster was a little man called John Thomas Corlett, pert and proud, with the sharp nose of a pike and the gait of a bantam.

John Thomas was also a tailor. On a cowhouse door laid across two school forms he sat cross-legged among his cloth, his "maidens," and his smoothing irons, with his boys and girls, class by class, in a big half circle round about him.

The great little man had one standing ground of daily assault on the dusty jacket of poor Pete, and that was that the lad came late to school. Every morning Pete's welcome from the tailor-schoolmaster was a volley of expletives, and a swipe of the cane across his shoulders. " The craythur ! The dunce ! The durt ! I'm taiching him, and taiching him, and he .won't be taicht."

The soul of the schoolmaster had just two human weaknesses. One of these was a weakness for drink, and as a little vessel he could not take much without being full. Then he always taught the Church catechism and swore at his boys in Manx.

"Peter Quilliam," he cried one day, "who brought you out of the land of Egypt and the house of bondage ? "

"'Deed, master," said Pete, "I never was in no such places, for I never had the money nor the clothes for it, and that's how stories are getting about."

The second of the schoolmaster's frailties was love of his daughter, a child of four, a cripple, whom he had lamed in her infancy, by letting her fall as he tossed her in his arms while in drink. The constant terror of his mind was lest some further accident should befall her. Between class and class he would go to a window, from which, when he had thrown up its lower sash, dim with the scratches of names, he could see one end of his own white cottage, and the little pathway, between lines of gilvers, coming down from the porch.

Pete had seen the little one hobbling along this path on her lame leg, and giggling with a heart of glee when she had eluded the eyes of her mother and escaped into the road. One day it chanced, after the heavy spring rains had swollen every watercourse, that he came upon the little curly poll, tumbfing and tossing like a bell-buoy in a gale, down the flood of the river that runs to the sea at Port Mooar. Pete rescued the child and took her home, and then, as if he had done nothing unusual, he went on to school, dripping water from his legs at every step.

When John Thomas saw him coming, in bare feet, triddle-traddle, triddle-traddle, up the school-house floor, his indignation at the boy for being later than usual rose to fiery wrath for being drenched as well. Waiting for no explanation, concluding that Pete had been fishing for crabs among the stones of Port Lewaigue, he burst into a loud volley of his accustomed expletives, and timed and punctuated them by a thwack of the cane between every word.

"The waistrel ! (thwack). The dirt ! (thwack). I'm taiching him (thwack), and taiching him (thwack), and he won't be taicht ! " (Thwack, thwack, thwack.)

Pete said never a word. Rolling his stinging shoulders under his jacket, and ramming his smarting hands, like wet eels, into his breeches' pockets, he took his place in silence at the bottom of the class.

But a girl, a little dark thing in a red frock, stepped out from her place beside the boy, shot up like a gleam to the schoolmaster as he returned to his seat among the cloth and needles, dealt him a smart slap across the face, and then burst into a fit of hysterical crying. Her name was Katherine Cregeen. She was the daughter of Csar the Cornaa miller, the founder of Ballajora Chapel, and a mighty man among the Methodists.

Katherine went unpunished, but that was the end of Pete's schooling. His learning was not too heavy for a big lad's head to carry-a bit of reading if it was all in print, and no writing at all except half-a-dozen capital letters. It was not a formidable equipment for the battle of life, but Bridget would not hear of more. She herself, meanwhile, had annexed that character which was always the first and easiest to attach itself to a woman with a child but no visible father for it-the character of a witch. That name for his mother was Pete's earliest recollection of the high-road, and when the consciousness of its meaning came to him, he did not rebel, but sullenly acquiesced, for he had been born to it and knew nothing to the contrary. If the boys quarrelled with him at play, the first word was "your mother's a butch." Then he cried at the reproach, or perhaps fought like a vengeance at the insult, but he never dreamt of disbelieving the fact or of loving his mother any the less.

Bridget was accused of the evil eye. Cattle sickened in the fields, and when there was no proof that she had looked over the gate, the idea was suggested that she crossed them as a hare. One day a neighbour's dog started a hare in a meadow where some cows were grazing. This was observed by a gang of boys playing at hockey in the road. Instantly there was a shout and a whoop, and the boys with their sticks were in full chase after the yelping dog, crying, '. "The hutch! The hutch! It's Bridget Tom! Corlett's dogs are hunting Bridget Black Tom ! Kill her, caddie ! Kill her, Sailor ! Jump, dog, jump!"

One of the boys playing at hockey was Pete. When his play` fellows ran after the dogs in their fanatic thirst, he ran too, but with a storm of other feelings. Outstripping all of them, very close at the heels of the dogs, kicking some, striking others with the hockey-stick, while the tears poured down his cheeks, he cried at the top of his voice to the hare leaping in front, "Run, mammy, run ! clink (dodge), mammy, clink ! Aw, mammy, mammy, run faster, run for your life, run! "

The hare dodged aside, shot into a thicket, and escaped its ursuers just as Corlett, the farmer, who had heard the outcry, came racing up with a gun. Then Pete swept his coat-sleeve across his gleaming eyes and leapt off home. When he got there, he found his mother sitting on the bink by the door knitting quietly. He threw himself into her arms and stroked her cheek with his hand.

"Oh, mammy, bogh," he cried, "how well you run ! If yon never run in your life you run then."

"Is the boy mad?" said Bridget.

But Pete went on stroking her cheek and crying between sobs of joy, " I heard Corlett shouting to the house for a gun and a fourpenny bit, and I thought I,was never going to see mammy no more. But you did clink, mammy! You did, though!"

The next time Katherine Cregeen saw Peter Quilliam, he was sitting on the ridge of rock at the mouth of Ballure Glen, playing doleful strains on a home-made whistle, and looking the picture of desolation and despair. His mother was lying near to death. He had left Mrs. Cregeen, Katherine's mother, a good soul getting the name of Grannie, to watch and tend her while he came out to comfort his simple heart in this lone spot between the land and the sea.

Katherine's eyes filled at sight of him, and when, without looking up or speaking, he went on to play his crazy tunes, something took the girl by the throat and she broke down utterly.

" Never mind, Pete. No-I don't mean that-but don't cry, Pete."

Pete was not crying at all, but only playing away on his whistle and gazing out to sea with a look of dumb vacancy. Katherine knelt beside him, put her arms around his neck, and cried for both of them.

Somebody hailed him from the hedge by the water-trough, and he rose, took off his cap, smoothed his hair with his hand, and walked towards the house without a word.

Bridget was dying of pleurisy, brought on by a long day's work at trimming turnips in a soaking rain. Dr. Mylechreest had poultice her lungs with mustard and linseed, but all to no purpose. "It's feeling the same as the sun on your back at harvest," she murmured yet the poultices brought no heat to her frozen chest.

Caesar Cregeen was at her side; John the Clerk, too, called John the Widow; Kelly, the rural postman, who went by the name of Kelly the Thief; as well as Black Tom, her father. Csar was discoursing of sinners and their latter end. John was remembering how at his election to the clerkship he had rashly promised to bury the poor for nothing; Kelly was thinking he would be the first to carry the news to Christian Ballawhaine; and Black Tom was varying the exercise of pounding rock-sugar for his bees with that of breaking his playful wit on the dying woman.

"No use; I'm laving you; I'm going on my long journey," said Bridget, while Grannie used a shovel as a fon to relieve her gusty breathing.

" Got anything in your pocket for the road, woman ? " said the thatcher.

" It's not houses of bricks and mortal I'm for calling at now," she ., answered.

"Dear heart! Put up a bit of a prayer," whispered Grannie to her husband; and Caesar took a pinch of snuff out of his waistcoat pocket, and fell to "wrastling with the Lord."

Bridget seemed to be comforted. " I see the jasper gates," she panted, fixing her hazy eyes on the scraas under the thatch, from which broken spiders' webs hung down like rats' tails.

Then she called for Pete. She had something to give him. It was the stocking foot with the eighty greasy Manx bank-notes which his father, Peter Christian, had paid her fifteen years before. Pete lit the candle and steadied it while Grannie cut the stocking from the wall side of the bed-ticking. Black Tom dropped the sugar-pounder and exposed his broken teeth in his surprise at so much wealth; John the Widow blinked; and Kelly the Thief poked his head forward until the peak of his postman's cap fell on to the bridge of his nose.

A sea-fog lay over the land that morning, and when it lifted Bridget's soul went up as well.

" Poor thing ! Poor thing !" said Grannie. " The ways were cold for her-cold, cold!"

" A datent lass," said John the Clerk; "and oughtn't to be buried with the common trash, seeing she's left money."

" A hard-working woman, too, and on her feet for ever; but 'lowanced in her intellecks, for all," said Kelly.

And Caesar cried, " A brand plucked from the burning ! Lord, give me more of the like at the judgment."

When all was over, and tears both hot and cold were wiped away Pete shed none of them-the neighbours who had stood with the lad in the churchyard on Maughold Head returned to the cottage by the water-trough to decide what was to be done with his eighty good bank-notes. "It's a fortune," said one. "Let him put it with Mr. Dumbell," said another. "Get the boy a trade first-he's a big lump now, sixteen for spring," said a third. "A draper, eh ?" said a fourth. " May I presume ? My nephew, Robbie Clucas, of Ramsey, now?" " A datent man, very," said John the Widow; "but if I'm not ambitious, there's my son-in-law, John Cowley. The lad's cut to a dot for a grocer, and what more nicer than having your own shop and your own name over the door, if you plaze-'Peter Quilliam, tay and sugar merchant !'-they're telling me John will be riding in his carriage and pair soon."

"Chut ! your grannie and your carriage and pairs," shouted a rasping voice at last. It was Black Tom. " Who says the fortune is belonging to the lad at all ? It's mine, and if there's law in the land I'll have it."

Meanwhile, Pete, with the dull thud in his ears of earth falling on a coffin, had made his way down to Ballawhaine. He had never been there before, and he felt confused, but he did not tremble. Half-way up the carriage-drive he passed a sandy-haired youth of his own age, a'slim dandy who hummed a tune and looked at him carelessly over his shoulder. Pete knew him-he was Ross, the boys called him Dross, son and heir of Christian Ballawhaine.

At the big house Pete asked for the master. The English footman, in scarlet knee-breeches, left him to wait in the stone hall. The place was very quiet and rather cold, but all as clean as a gull's wing. There was a dark table in the middle and a high-backed chair against the wall. Two oil pictures faced each other from opposite sides. One was of, an old man without a beard, but with a high forehead, framed around with short grey hair. The other was of a woman with a tired look and a baby on her lap. Under this there was a little black picture that seemed to Pete to be the likeness of a fancy tombstone. And the print on it, so far as Pete could spell it out, was that of a tombstone too, " In loving memory of Verbena, beloved wife of Peter Chr-"

The Ballawhaine came crunching the sand on the hall-floor. He looked old, and had now a pent-house of bristly eyebrows of a different colour from his hair. Pete had often seen him on the road riding by.

" Well, my lad, what can I do for you?" be said. He spoke in a jerky voice, as if he thought to overawe the boy.

Pete fumbled his stocking cap. " Mother's dead," he answered vacantly.

The Ballawhaine knew that already. Kelly the Thief had run hot-foot to inform him. He thought Pete had come to claim maintenance now that his mother was gone.

" So she's been telling you the same old story ?" he said briskly. At that Pete's face stiffened all at once."She's been telling me that you're my father, sir."

The Ballawhaine tried to laugh. " Indeed! " he replied; "it's a wise child, now, that knows its own father."

" I'm not rightly knowing what you mane, sir," said Pete.

Then the Ballawhaine fell to slandering the poor woman in her grave, declaring that she could not know who was the father of her child, and protesting that no son of hers should ever see the colour of money of his. Saying this with a snarl, he brought down his right hand with a thump on to the table. There was a big hairy mole near the joint of the first finger. Sir, if you plaze," said Pete; "she was telling me you gave her this."

He turned up the corner of his jersey, tugged out of his pocket, from behind his flaps, the eighty Manx bank-notes, and held them in his right hand on the table. There was a mole at the joint of Pete's first finger also.

The Ballawhaine saw it. He drew back his hand and slid it behind him. Then in another voice he said, " Well, my lad, isn't it enough ? What are you wanting with more?"

" I'm not wanting more," said Pete; " I'm not wanting this. Take it back," and he put down the roll of notes between them.

The Ballawhaine sank into the chair, took a handkerchief out of his tails with the hand that had been lurking there, and began to rnop his forehead. "Eh? Howl What d'ye mean, boy?" he stammered.

" I mane," said Pete, " that if I kept that money there is people would say my mother was a bad woman, and you bought her and paid her-I'm hearing the like at some of them."

He took a step nearer. " And I mane, too, that you did wrong by my mother long ago, and now that she's dead you're blackening her; and you're a bad heart, and a low tongue, and if I was only a man, and didn't know you were my father, I'd break every bone in your skin."

Then Pete twisted about and shouted into the dark part of the hall, " Come along, there, my ould cockatoo ! It's time to be putting me to the door."

The English footman in the scarlet breeches had been peeping from under the stairs.

That was Pete's first and last interview with his father. Peter Christian Ballawhaine was a terror in the Keys by this time, but he had trembled before his son like a whipped cur.


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