[From Shadowland in Ellan Vannin, 1880]
The mysterious Irishwoman.
THE proverbial rapidity that attends the transit of ill news was not unverified in this case, for by early morning the Clagues' house was filled with sympathizing friends and neighbours, who all in turn offered advice or consolation. Conspicuous amongst them, not only. from her extraordinary appearance, but also that, while each and every one suggested various specifics, this woman stood aloof, silent and motionless -a t .dl, gaunt figure. Her dark, deep-set eyes were fixed upon the sufferer. She was enveloped in a long cloak of some thick woollen material reaching nearly to her heels. For head-gear she had tied a handkerchief or shawl of bright colours under her chin. From beneath this some black locks of hair, slightly tinged with gray, escaped over her forehead and deep-set eyes. There, towering above all the rest, she might have passed for some fateful sibyl about to pronounce the doom of the little one, on whom for the most part her eyes rested.
In all the crowd none seemed to observe her specially with the exception of Betsey, and as steadily as the woman watched the child, so steadily did Betsey gaze on her.
The sibyl-for so we may call her for the presentat last became conscious of Mistress Criggal's stare slowly raising her eyes, she signed to the serving woman to follow her from the room. This Betsey quickly did, her tall guide leading the way with such rapid strides that the short rotund woman follow ng found it hard to keep up with her, waddle as fast as she might ; nor did the stranger pause until they had completely skirted the buildings at the back of tie house, and stood beneath the very tree from whica, years before, Richard had cut the memorable kiern rod.
'Why, Misthress Ryley,' panted Betsey; 'oh loss, I'm jus' kilt at ye-well, well-to-ugh-puff-to think o' secin' ye, afther all these years-loss save usugh-wondhers 'll never cease-ugh-ugh-no more 'n they won't-ugh-ugh-will I ever get the breath in me agen ? Well, as I was sayin,' to think o' secin' you afther all these years-yer an uncommon sthrong wumin ; but yer changed, changed terrible;' and Betsey raised her eyes half timidly to the formidable figure scowling down upon her.
'And so are you changed-changed terrible,' echoed Madam Ryley, in by no means suave tones. Alas for the credit of the sex ! what woman, be she what she may, can take calmly any uncomplimentary allusion to her personal appearance ?
'An' where have ye been all these years ?' inquired Betsey, in a tone that reflected the huffiness of her -companion's.
'Where but in my own counthry-Ireland. Were not my husband and my two fine lads drowned, in those cruel waters that are shining so deceitfully still now, in Ramsey Bay. Could I stay near to hear the winds howl above their ocean grave, or watch the waves pass over, either in fury or treacherous calm, the spot where they had gone down-down-never to gladden mine aching eyes with sight of them again ?'
'Ay yes, sure,' said Betsey, 'it was very hard on ye.'
'Hard on me, O God!' cried the woman; but, suddenly charging her tone, she said: 'But enough of this, my good creature'--and, notwithstanding the incongruity of her dress and general appearance, there was something in her manner that seemed to bespeak her of a grade, in education certainly, and probably birth also, above her companion-' enough, I say, of me and my concerns-except this : that great kindness was shown me (the remembrance rests warm in my heart) by the father of the poor woman now in such grievous trouble, otherwise I had never set foot in this spot again, fraught with such sad memories to me ! There are those'-and here the woman's eyes assumed the painful glare, and her expression the look of mystery and cunning, that betoken an intellect unsettled-'there are those that do my bidding, and from them I have beard from time to time how it fared with the daughter of my true friend and her belongings. I should have come long ago to give mine aid in their season of trial, but I was warned not to do so; but now I am permitted.'
'God be good to us !' murmured Betsey ; ' I thrust she has no deelin's with the devil or the little people !'
'What did ye say ?' sternly demanded Madam Ryley.
'Well, listen then while I tell you what must be done to restore to the Clagues their child-for that is none of theirs, but a fairy changeling. Do you understand ?'
' Thë, thë [Yes, yes] !' replied Betsey shortly.
' Well, attend then '-for poor Mistress Criggal was trembling from head to foot, glancing here and there in the uncertain morning light, as if expecting to behold some ghost or goblin, or, at all events, some malignant fairy standing near.
'Oh, I'll attend enough; but could'n I lis'en to all this in the house ?'
'No; where we are I'll say my say,' answered the woman, in the tone of command she had assumed from the first. 'As I told you before, that child is no mortal, but one of a fairy brood, and with you it very much rests whether the true child is restored. To ask the parents themselves to do what is necessary would be mere waste of breath, believing as they do, strange as it is, that the creature in the room beyond is their own offspring. Prompt and severe measures have to be taken, with no shirking of any suffering to the elfling. Do you listen ?' she asked severely-for Betsey for some time had turned her head away, with her eyes fixed anywhere but on the speaker, whilst she kept rubbing one hand backwards and forwards over her mouth, her whole expression the while denoting anything but attention or willing assent to whatever Mistress Ryley might be pleased to propose.
'I'm lis'enin' enough,' she broke out indignantly ; ' an' I'm wondtherin' at ye, or the likes of ye, thinkin' ye can teach we what to do. If the child is changed, as ye say, it is'n' to Irelan', or the likes of Irelan'-a dirt of a place like that-that any Manx body would have to go to larn what to do with the good people, nor, for the matther of that, for anything else, I'm thinkin'. The child is changed for sure-an' me an' a neighbour woman-a decent Manx body, too-is goin' to thry an' get the masther an' misthress to bed to-night, an' then we know what to do.'
' I don't believe even a surmise of the truth entered your mind till you learnt from me what is the case.'
' Mebbe not, mebbe not !' testily replied Betsey, her indignation getting the better of her fears ; 'there's no tellin' what bad things, shurmises, or the like, may come to them as is in bad comp'ny. But I can't be hintherin' no longer. I must go to see for some breakfast for the folks that's in, an' look to the cows.'
'Then go, you ignorant woman ; I must do what I can without your aid.'
' Ye'd betther not meddle nor make in what doesn' consarn ye, or lay a finger on the child ; ye'll get no help from me.'
' I have those to help me that you wot not of,' said the Irishwoman, in tones so grandiose and commanding that the good nurse's supernatural fears again asserted themselves, and she retraced her steps to the house in very undignified haste.