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Margaret Henan would have been a striking figure under any circumstances, but never more so than when I first chanced upon her, a sack of grain of fully a hundredweight on her shoulder, as she walked with sure though tottering stride from the cart-tail to the stable, pausing for an instant to gather strength at the foot of the steep steps that led to the grain-bin. There were four of these steps, and she went up them, a step at a time, slowly, unwaveringly, and with so dogged certitude that it never entered my mind that her strength could fail her and let that hundred-weight sack fall from the lean and withered frame that wellnigh doubled under it. For she was patently an old woman, and it was her age that made me linger by the cart and watch.
Six times she went between the cart and the stable, each time with a full sack on her back, and beyond passing the time of day with me she took no notice of my presence. Then, the cart empty, she fumbled for matches and lighted a short clay pipe, pressing down the burning surface of the tobacco with a calloused and apparently nerveless thumb. The hands were noteworthy. They were large-knuckled, sinewy and malformed by labour, rimed with callouses, the nails blunt and broken, and with here and there cuts and bruises, healed and healing, such as are common to the hands of hard-working men. On the back were huge, upstanding veins, eloquent of age and toil. Looking at them, it was hard to believe that they were the hands of the woman who had once been the belle of Island McGill. This last, of course, I learned later. At the time I knew neither her history nor her identity.
She wore heavy man’s brogans. Her legs were stockingless, and I had noticed when she walked that her bare feet were thrust into the crinkly, iron-like shoes that sloshed about her lean ankles at every step. Her figure, shapeless and waistless, was garbed in a rough man’s shirt and in a ragged flannel petticoat that had once been red. But it was her face, wrinkled, withered and weather-beaten, surrounded by an aureole of unkempt and straggling wisps of greyish hair, that caught and held me. Neither drifted hair nor serried wrinkles could hide the splendid dome of a forehead, high and broad without verging in the slightest on the abnormal.
The sunken cheeks and pinched nose told little of the quality of the life that flickered behind those clear blue eyes of hers. Despite the minutiae of wrinkle-work that somehow failed to weazen them, her eyes were clear as a girl’s—clear, out-looking, and far-seeing, and with an open and unblinking steadfastness of gaze that was disconcerting. The remarkable thing was the distance between them. It is a lucky man or woman who has the width of an eye between, but with Margaret Henan the width between her eyes was fully that of an eye and a half. Yet so symmetrically moulded was her face that this remarkable feature produced no uncanny effect, and, for that matter, would have escaped the casual observer’s notice. The mouth, shapeless and toothless, with down-turned corners and lips dry and parchment-like, nevertheless lacked the muscular slackness so usual with age. The lips might have been those of a mummy, save for that impression of rigid firmness they gave. Not that they were atrophied. On the contrary, they seemed tense and set with a muscular and spiritual determination. There, and in the eyes, was the secret of the certitude with which she carried the heavy sacks up the steep steps, with never a false step or overbalance, and emptied them in the grain-bin.
“You are an old woman to be working like this,” I ventured.
She looked at me with that strange, unblinking gaze, and she thought and spoke with the slow deliberateness that characterized everything about her, as if well aware of an eternity that was hers and in which there was no need for haste. Again I was impressed by the enormous certitude of her. In this eternity that seemed so indubitably hers, there was time and to spare for safe-footing and stable equilibrium—for certitude, in short. No more in her spiritual life than in carrying the hundredweights of grain was there a possibility of a misstep or an overbalancing. The feeling produced in me was uncanny. Here was a human soul that, save for the most glimmering of contacts, was beyond the humanness of me. And the more I learned of Margaret Henan in the weeks that followed the more mysteriously remote she became. She was as alien as a far-journeyer from some other star, and no hint could she nor all the countryside give me of what forms of living, what heats of feeling, or rules of philosophic contemplation actuated her in all that she had been and was.
“I wull be suvunty-two come Guid Friday a fortnight,” she said in reply to my question.
“But you are an old woman to be doing this man’s work, and a strong man’s work at that,” I insisted.
Again she seemed to immerse herself in that atmosphere of contemplative eternity, and so strangely did it affect me that I should not have been surprised to have awaked a century or so later and found her just beginning to enunciate her reply—
“The work hoz tull be done, an’ I am beholden tull no one.”
“But have you no children, no family, relations?”
“Oh, aye, a-plenty o’ them, but they no see fut tull be helpun’ me.”
She drew out her pipe for a moment, then added, with a nod of her head toward the house, “I luv’ wuth meself.”
I glanced at the house, straw-thatched and commodious, at the large stable, and at the large array of fields I knew must belong with the place.
“It is a big bit of land for you to farm by yourself.”
“Oh, aye, a bug but, suvunty acres. Ut kept me old mon buzzy, along wuth a son an’ a hired mon, tull say naught o’ extra honds un the harvest an’ a maid-servant un the house.”
She clambered into the cart, gathered the reins in her hands, and quizzed me with her keen, shrewd eyes.
“Belike ye hail from over the watter—Ameruky, I’m meanun’?”
“Yes, I’m a Yankee,” I answered.
“Ye wull no be findun’ mony Island McGill folk stoppun’ un Ameruky?”
“No; I don’t remember ever meeting one, in the States.”
She nodded her head.
“They are home-luvun’ bodies, though I wull no be sayin’ they are no fair-travelled. Yet they come home ot the last, them oz are no lost ot sea or kult by fevers an’ such-like un foreign parts.”
“Then your sons will have gone to sea and come home again?” I queried.
“Oh, aye, all savun’ Samuel oz was drownded.”
At the mention of Samuel I could have sworn to a strange light in her eyes, and it seemed to me, as by some telepathic flash, that I divined in her a tremendous wistfulness, an immense yearning. It seemed to me that here was the key to her inscrutableness, the clue that if followed properly would make all her strangeness plain. It came to me that here was a contact and that for the moment I was glimpsing into the soul of her. The question was tickling on my tongue, but she forestalled me.
She tchk’d to the horse, and with a “Guid day tull you, sir,” drove off.
A simple, homely people are the folk of Island McGill, and I doubt if a more sober, thrifty, and industrious folk is to be found in all the world. Meeting them abroad—and to meet them abroad one must meet them on the sea, for a hybrid sea-faring and farmer breed are they—one would never take them to be Irish. Irish they claim to be, speaking of the North of Ireland with pride and sneering at their Scottish brothers; yet Scotch they undoubtedly are, transplanted Scotch of long ago, it is true, but none the less Scotch, with a thousand traits, to say nothing of their tricks of speech and woolly utterance, which nothing less than their Scotch clannishness could have preserved to this late day.
A narrow loch, scarcely half a mile wide, separates Island McGill from the mainland of Ireland; and, once across this loch, one finds himself in an entirely different country. The Scotch impression is strong, and the people, to commence with, are Presbyterians. When it is considered that there is no public-house in all the island and that seven thousand souls dwell therein, some idea may be gained of the temperateness of the community. Wedded to old ways, public opinion and the ministers are powerful influences, while fathers and mothers are revered and obeyed as in few other places in this modern world. Courting lasts never later than ten at night, and no girl walks out with her young man without her parents’ knowledge and consent.
The young men go down to the sea and sow their wild oats in the wicked ports, returning periodically, between voyages, to live the old intensive morality, to court till ten o’clock, to sit under the minister each Sunday, and to listen at home to the same stern precepts that the elders preached to them from the time they were laddies. Much they learned of women in the ends of the earth, these seafaring sons, yet a canny wisdom was theirs and they never brought wives home with them. The one solitary exception to this had been the schoolmaster, who had been guilty of bringing a wife from half a mile the other side of the loch. For this he had never been forgiven, and he rested under a cloud for the remainder of his days. At his death the wife went back across the loch to her own people, and the blot on the escutcheon of Island McGill was erased. In the end the sailor-men married girls of their own homeland and settled down to become exemplars of all the virtues for which the island was noted.
Island McGill was without a history. She boasted none of the events that go to make history. There had never been any wearing of the green, any Fenian conspiracies, any land disturbances. There had been but one eviction, and that purely technical—a test case, and on advice of the tenant’s lawyer. So Island McGill was without annals. History had passed her by. She paid her taxes, acknowledged her crowned rulers, and left the world alone; all she asked in return was that the world should leave her alone. The world was composed of two parts—Island McGill and the rest of it. And whatever was not Island McGill was outlandish and barbarian; and well she knew, for did not her seafaring sons bring home report of that world and its ungodly ways?
It was from the skipper of a Glasgow tramp, as passenger from Colombo to Rangoon, that I had first learned of the existence of Island McGill; and it was from him that I had carried the letter that gave me entrance to the house of Mrs. Ross, widow of a master mariner, with a daughter living with her and with two sons, master mariners themselves and out upon the sea. Mrs. Ross did not take in boarders, and it was Captain Ross’s letter alone that had enabled me to get from her bed and board. In the evening, after my encounter with Margaret Henan, I questioned Mrs. Ross, and I knew on the instant that I had in truth stumbled upon mystery.
Like all Island McGill folk, as I was soon to discover, Mrs. Ross was at first averse to discussing Margaret Henan at all. Yet it was from her I learned that evening that Margaret Henan had once been one of the island belles. Herself the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, she had married Thomas Henan, equally well-to-do. Beyond the usual housewife’s tasks she had never been accustomed to work. Unlike many of the island women, she had never lent a hand in the fields.
“But what of her children?” I asked.
“Two o’ the sons, Jamie an’ Timothy uz married an’ be goun’ tull sea. Thot bug house close tull the post office uz Jamie’s. The daughters thot ha’ no married be luvun’ wuth them as dud marry. An’ the rest be dead.”
“The Samuels,” Clara interpolated, with what I suspected was a giggle.
She was Mrs. Ross’s daughter, a strapping young woman with handsome features and remarkably handsome black eyes.
“’Tuz naught to be smuckerun’ ot,” her mother reproved her.
“The Samuels?” I intervened. “I don’t understand.”
“Her four sons thot died.”
“And were they all named Samuel?”
“Strange,” I commented in the lagging silence.
“Very strange,” Mrs. Ross affirmed, proceeding stolidly with the knitting of the woollen singlet on her knees—one of the countless under-garments that she interminably knitted for her skipper sons.
“And it was only the Samuels that died?” I queried, in further attempt.
“The others luved,” was the answer. “A fine fomuly—no finer on the island. No better lods ever sailed out of Island McGill. The munuster held them up oz models tull pottern after. Nor was ever a whusper breathed again’ the girls.”
“But why is she left alone now in her old age?” I persisted. “Why don’t her own flesh and blood look after her? Why does she live alone? Don’t they ever go to see her or care for her?”
“Never a one un twenty years an’ more now. She fetched ut on tull herself. She drove them from the house just oz she drove old Tom Henan, thot was her husband, tull hus death.”
“Drink?” I ventured.
Mrs. Ross shook her head scornfully, as if drink was a weakness beneath the weakest of Island McGill.
A long pause followed, during which Mrs. Ross knitted stolidly on, only nodding permission when Clara’s young man, mate on one of the Shire Line sailing ships, came to walk out with her. I studied the half-dozen ostrich eggs, hanging in the corner against the wall like a cluster of some monstrous fruit. On each shell were painted precipitous and impossible seas through which full-rigged ships foamed with a lack of perspective only equalled by their sharp technical perfection. On the mantelpiece stood two large pearl shells, obviously a pair, intricately carved by the patient hands of New Caledonian convicts. In the centre of the mantel was a stuffed bird-of-paradise, while about the room were scattered gorgeous shells from the southern seas, delicate sprays of coral sprouting from barnacled pi-pi shells and cased in glass, assegais from South Africa, stone axes from New Guinea, huge Alaskan tobacco-pouches beaded with heraldic totem designs, a boomerang from Australia, divers ships in glass bottles, a cannibal kai-kai bowl from the Marquesas, and fragile cabinets from China and the Indies and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and precious woods.
I gazed at this varied trove brought home by sailor sons, and pondered the mystery of Margaret Henan, who had driven her husband to his death and been forsaken by all her kin. It was not the drink. Then what was it?—some shocking cruelty? some amazing infidelity? or some fearful, old-world peasant-crime?
I broached my theories, but to all Mrs. Ross shook her head.
“Ut was no thot,” she said. “Margaret was a guid wife an’ a guid mother, an’ I doubt she would harm a fly. She brought up her fomuly God-fearin’ an’ decent-minded. Her trouble was thot she took lunatic—turned eediot.”
Mrs. Ross tapped significantly on her forehead to indicate a state of addlement.
“But I talked with her this afternoon,” I objected, “and I found her a sensible woman—remarkably bright for one of her years.”
“Aye, an’ I’m grantun’ all thot you say,” she went on calmly. “But I am no referrun’ tull thot. I am referrun’ tull her wucked-headed an’ vucious stubbornness. No more stubborn woman ever luv’d than Margaret Henan. Ut was all on account o’ Samuel, which was the name o’ her youngest an’ they do say her favourut brother—hum oz died by hus own hond all through the munuster’s mustake un no registerun’ the new church ot Dublin. Ut was a lesson thot the name was musfortunate, but she would no take ut, an’ there was talk when she called her first child Samuel—hum thot died o’ the croup. An’ wuth thot what does she do but call the next one Samuel, an’ hum only three when he fell un tull the tub o’ hot watter an’ was plain cooked tull death. Ut all come, I tell you, o’ her wucked-headed an’ foolush stubbornness. For a Samuel she must hov; an’ ut was the death of the four of her sons. After the first, dudna her own mother go down un the dirt tull her feet, a-beggun’ an’ pleadun’ wuth her no tull name her next one Samuel? But she was no tull be turned from her purpose. Margaret Henan was always set on her ways, an’ never more so thon on thot name Samuel.
“She was fair lunatuc on Samuel. Dudna her neighbours’ an’ all kuth an’ kun savun’ them thot luv’d un the house wuth her, get up an’ walk out ot the christenun’ of the second—hum thot was cooked? Thot they dud, an’ ot the very moment the munuster asked what would the bairn’s name be. ‘Samuel,’ says she; an’ wuth thot they got up an’ walked out an’ left the house. An’ ot the door dudna her Aunt Fannie, her mother’s suster, turn an’ say loud for all tull hear: ‘What for wull she be wantun’ tull murder the wee thing?’ The munuster heard fine, an’ dudna like ut, but, oz he told my Larry afterward, what could he do? Ut was the woman’s wush, an’ there was no law again’ a mother callun’ her child accordun’ tull her wush.
“An’ then was there no the third Samuel? An’ when he was lost ot sea off the Cape, dudna she break all laws o’ nature tull hov a fourth? She was forty-seven, I’m tellun’ ye, an’ she hod a child ot forty-seven. Thunk on ut! Ot forty-seven! Ut was fair scand’lous.”
From Clara, next morning, I got the tale of Margaret Henan’s favourite brother; and from here and there, in the week that followed, I pieced together the tragedy of Margaret Henan. Samuel Dundee had been the youngest of Margaret’s four brothers, and, as Clara told me, she had well-nigh worshipped him. He was going to sea at the time, skipper of one of the sailing ships of the Bank Line, when he married Agnes Hewitt. She was described as a slender wisp of a girl, delicately featured and with a nervous organization of the supersensitive order. Theirs had been the first marriage in the “new” church, and after a two-weeks’ honeymoon Samuel had kissed his bride good-bye and sailed in command of the Loughbank, a big four-masted barque.
And it was because of the “new” church that the minister’s blunder occurred. Nor was it the blunder of the minister alone, as one of the elders later explained; for it was equally the blunder of the whole Presbytery of Coughleen, which included fifteen churches on Island McGill and the mainland. The old church, beyond repair, had been torn down and the new one built on the original foundation. Looking upon the foundation-stones as similar to a ship’s keel, it never entered the minister’s nor the Presbytery’s head that the new church was legally any other than the old church.
“An’ three couples was married the first week un the new church,” Clara said. “First of all, Samuel Dundee an’ Agnes Hewitt; the next day Albert Mahan an’ Minnie Duncan; an’ by the week-end Eddie Troy and Flo Mackintosh—all sailor-men, an’ un sux weeks’ time the last of them back tull their ships an’ awa’, an’ no one o’ them dreamin’ of the wuckedness they’d been ot.”
The Imp of the Perverse must have chuckled at the situation. All things favoured. The marriages had taken place in the first week of May, and it was not till three months later that the minister, as required by law, made his quarterly report to the civil authorities in Dublin. Promptly came back the announcement that his church had no legal existence, not being registered according to the law’s demands. This was overcome by prompt registration; but the marriages were not to be so easily remedied. The three sailor husbands were away, and their wives, in short, were not their wives.
“But the munuster was no for alarmin’ the bodies,” said Clara. “He kept hus council an’ bided hus time, waitun’ for the lods tull be back from sea. Oz luck would have ut, he was away across the island tull a christenun’ when Albert Mahan arrives home onexpected, hus shup just docked ot Dublin. Ut’s nine o’clock ot night when the munuster, un hus sluppers an’ dressun’-gown, gets the news. Up he jumps an’ calls for horse an’ saddle, an’ awa’ he goes like the wund for Albert Mahan’s. Albert uz just goun’ tull bed an’ hoz one shoe off when the munuster arrives.
“‘Come wuth me, the pair o’ ye,’ says he, breathless-like. ‘What for, an’ me dead weary an’ goun’ tull bed?’ says Albert. ‘Yull be lawful married,’ says the munuster. Albert looks black an’ says, ‘Now, munuster, ye wull be jokun’,’ but tull humself, oz I’ve heard hum tell mony a time, he uz wonderun’ thot the munuster should a-took tull whusky ot hus time o’ life.
“’We be no married?’ says Minnie. He shook his head. ‘An’ I om no Mussus Mahan?’ ‘No,’ says he, ‘ye are no Mussus Mahan. Ye are plain Muss Duncan.’ ‘But ye married ’us yoursel’,’ says she. ‘I dud an’ I dudna,’ says he. An’ wuth thot he tells them the whole upshot, an’ Albert puts on hus shoe, an’ they go wuth the munuster an’ are married proper an’ lawful, an’ oz Albert Mahan says afterward mony’s the time, ‘’Tus no every mon thot hoz two weddun’ nights on Island McGill.’”
Six months later Eddie Troy came home and was promptly remarried. But Samuel Dundee was away on a three-years’ voyage and his ship fell overdue. Further to complicate the situation, a baby boy, past two years old, was waiting for him in the arms of his wife. The months passed, and the wife grew thin with worrying. “Ut’s no meself I’m thunkun’ on,” she is reported to have said many times, “but ut’s the puir fatherless bairn. Uf aught happened tull Samuel where wull the bairn stond?”
Lloyd’s posted the Loughbank as missing, and the owners ceased the monthly remittance of Samuel’s half-pay to his wife. It was the question of the child’s legitimacy that preyed on her mind, and, when all hope of Samuel’s return was abandoned, she drowned herself and the child in the loch. And here enters the greater tragedy. The Loughbank was not lost. By a series of sea disasters and delays too interminable to relate, she had made one of those long, unsighted passages such as occur once or twice in half a century. How the Imp must have held both his sides! Back from the sea came Samuel, and when they broke the news to him something else broke somewhere in his heart or head. Next morning they found him where he had tried to kill himself across the grave of his wife and child. Never in the history of Island McGill was there so fearful a death-bed. He spat in the minister’s face and reviled him, and died blaspheming so terribly that those that tended on him did so with averted gaze and trembling hands.
And, in the face of all this, Margaret Henan named her first child Samuel.
How account for the woman’s stubbornness? Or was it a morbid obsession that demanded a child of hers should be named Samuel? Her third child was a girl, named after herself, and the fourth was a boy again. Despite the strokes of fate that had already bereft her, and despite the loss of friends and relatives, she persisted in her resolve to name the child after her brother. She was shunned at church by those who had grown up with her. Her mother, after a final appeal, left her house with the warning that if the child were so named she would never speak to her again. And though the old lady lived thirty-odd years longer she kept her word. The minister agreed to christen the child any name but Samuel, and every other minister on Island McGill refused to christen it by the name she had chosen. There was talk on the part of Margaret Henan of going to law at the time, but in the end she carried the child to Belfast and there had it christened Samuel.
And then nothing happened. The whole island was confuted. The boy grew and prospered. The schoolmaster never ceased averring that it was the brightest lad he had ever seen. Samuel had a splendid constitution, a tremendous grip on life. To everybody’s amazement he escaped the usual run of childish afflictions. Measles, whooping-cough and mumps knew him not. He was armour-clad against germs, immune to all disease. Headaches and earaches were things unknown. “Never so much oz a boil or a pumple,” as one of the old bodies told me, ever marred his healthy skin. He broke school records in scholarship and athletics, and whipped every boy of his size or years on Island McGill.
It was a triumph for Margaret Henan. This paragon was hers, and it bore the cherished name. With the one exception of her mother, friends and relatives drifted back and acknowledged that they had been mistaken; though there were old crones who still abided by their opinion and who shook their heads ominously over their cups of tea. The boy was too wonderful to last. There was no escaping the curse of the name his mother had wickedly laid upon him. The young generation joined Margaret Henan in laughing at them, but the old crones continued to shake their heads.
Other children followed. Margaret Henan’s fifth was a boy, whom she called Jamie, and in rapid succession followed three girls, Alice, Sara, and Nora, the boy Timothy, and two more girls, Florence and Katie. Katie was the last and eleventh, and Margaret Henan, at thirty-five, ceased from her exertions. She had done well by Island McGill and the Queen. Nine healthy children were hers. All prospered. It seemed her ill-luck had shot its bolt with the deaths of her first two. Nine lived, and one of them was named Samuel.
Jamie elected to follow the sea, though it was not so much a matter of election as compulsion, for the eldest sons on Island McGill remained on the land, while all other sons went to the salt-ploughing. Timothy followed Jamie, and by the time the latter had got his first command, a steamer in the Bay trade out of Cardiff, Timothy was mate of a big sailing ship. Samuel, however, did not take kindly to the soil. The farmer’s life had no attraction for him. His brothers went to sea, not out of desire, but because it was the only way for them to gain their bread; and he, who had no need to go, envied them when, returned from far voyages, they sat by the kitchen fire, and told their bold tales of the wonderlands beyond the sea-rim.
Samuel became a teacher, much to his father’s disgust, and even took extra certificates, going to Belfast for his examinations. When the old master retired, Samuel took over his school. Secretly, however, he studied navigation, and it was Margaret’s delight when he sat by the kitchen fire, and, despite their master’s tickets, tangled up his brothers in the theoretics of their profession. Tom Henan alone was outraged when Samuel, school teacher, gentleman, and heir to the Henan farm, shipped to sea before the mast. Margaret had an abiding faith in her son’s star, and whatever he did she was sure was for the best. Like everything else connected with his glorious personality, there had never been known so swift a rise as in the case of Samuel. Barely with two years’ sea experience before the mast, he was taken from the forecastle and made a provisional second mate. This occurred in a fever port on the West Coast, and the committee of skippers that examined him agreed that he knew more of the science of navigation than they had remembered or forgotten. Two years later he sailed from Liverpool, mate of the Starry Grace, with both master’s and extra-master’s tickets in his possession. And then it happened—the thing the old crones had been shaking their heads over for years.
It was told me by Gavin McNab, bos’n of the Starry Grace at the time, himself an Island McGill man.
“Wull do I remember ut,” he said. “We was runnin’ our Eastun’ down, an’ makun’ heavy weather of ut. Oz fine a sailor-mon oz ever walked was Samuel Henan. I remember the look of hum wull thot last marnun’, a-watch-un’ them bug seas curlun’ up astern, an’ a-watchun’ the old girl an’ seeun’ how she took them—the skupper down below an’ drunkun’ for days. Ut was ot seven thot Henan brought her up on tull the wund, not darun’ tull run longer on thot fearful sea. Ot eight, after havun’ breakfast, he turns un, an’ a half hour after up comes the skupper, bleary-eyed an’ shaky an’ holdun’ on tull the companion. Ut was fair smokun’, I om tellun’ ye, an’ there he stood, blunkun’ an’ noddun’ an’ talkun’ tull humsel’. ‘Keep off,’ says he ot last tull the mon ot the wheel. ‘My God!’ says the second mate, standun’ beside hum. The skupper never looks tull hum ot all, but keeps on mutterun” an’ jabberun’ tull humsel’. All of a suddent-like he straightens up an’ throws hus head back, an’ says: ‘Put your wheel over, me mon—now domn ye! Are ye deef thot ye’ll no be hearun’ me?’
“Ut was a drunken mon’s luck, for the Starry Grace wore off afore thot God-Almighty gale wuthout shuppun’ a bucket o’ watter, the second mate shoutun’ orders an’ the crew jumpun’ like mod. An’ wuth thot the skupper nods contented-like tull humself an’ goes below after more whusky. Ut was plain murder o’ the lives o’ all of us, for ut was no the time for the buggest shup afloat tull be runnun’. Run? Never hov I seen the like! Ut was beyond all thunkun’, an’ me goun’ tull sea, boy an’ men, for forty year. I tell you ut was fair awesome.
“The face o’ the second mate was white oz death, an’ he stood ut alone for half an hour, when ut was too much for hum an’ he went below an’ called Samuel an’ the third. Aye, a fine sailor-mon thot Samuel, but ut was too much for hum. He looked an’ studied, and looked an’ studied, but he could no see hus way. He durst na heave tull. She would ha’ been sweeput o’ all honds an’ stucks an’ everythung afore she could a-fetched up. There was naught tull do but keep on runnun’. An’ uf ut worsened we were lost ony way, for soon or late that overtakun’ sea was sure tull sweep us clear over poop an’ all.
“Dud I say ut was a God-Almighty gale? Ut was worse nor thot. The devil himself must ha’ hod a hond un the brewun’ o’ ut, ut was thot fearsome. I ha’ looked on some sights, but I om no carun’ tull look on the like o’ thot again. No mon dared tull be un hus bunk. No, nor no mon on the decks. All honds of us stood on top the house an’ held on an’ watched. The three mates was on the poop, with two men ot the wheel, an’ the only mon below was thot whusky-blighted captain snorun’ drunk.
“An’ then I see ut comun’, a mile away, risun’ above all the waves like an island un the sea—the buggest wave ever I looked upon. The three mates stood tulgether an’ watched ut comun’, a-prayun’ like we thot she would no break un passun’ us. But ut was no tull be. Ot the last, when she rose up like a mountain, curlun’ above the stern an’ blottun’ out the sky, the mates scattered, the second an’ third runnun’ for the mizzen-shrouds an’ climbun’ up, but the first runnun’ tull the wheel tull lend a hond. He was a brave men, thot Samuel Henan. He run straight un tull the face o’ thot father o’ all waves, no thunkun’ on humself but thunkun’ only o’ the shup. The two men was lashed tull the wheel, but he would be ready tull hond un the case they was kult. An’ then she took ut. We on the house could no see the poop for the thousand tons o’ watter thot hod hut ut. Thot wave cleaned them out, took everythung along wuth ut—the two mates, climbun’ up the mizzen-ruggun’, Samuel Henan runnun’ tull the wheel, the two men ot the wheel, aye, an’ the wheel utself. We never saw aught o’ them, for she broached tull what o’ the wheel goun’, an’ two men o’ us was drownded off the house, no tull mention the carpenter thot we pucked up ot the break o’ the poop wuth every bone o’ hus body broke tull he was like so much jelly.”
And here enters the marvel of it, the miraculous wonder of that woman’s heroic spirit. Margaret Henan was forty-seven when the news came home of the loss of Samuel; and it was not long after that the unbelievable rumour went around Island McGill. I say unbelievable. Island McGill would not believe. Doctor Hall pooh-pooh’d it. Everybody laughed at it as a good joke. They traced back the gossip to Sara Dack, servant to the Henans’, and who alone lived with Margaret and her husband. But Sara Dack persisted in her assertion and was called a low-mouthed liar. One or two dared question Tom Henan himself, but beyond black looks and curses for their presumption they elicited nothing from him.
The rumour died down, and the island fell to discussing in all its ramifications the loss of the Grenoble in the China seas, with all her officers and half her crew born and married on Island McGill. But the rumour would not stay down. Sara Dack was louder in her assertions, the looks Tom Henan cast about him were blacker than ever, and Dr. Hall, after a visit to the Henan house, no longer pooh-pooh’d. Then Island McGill sat up, and there was a tremendous wagging of tongues. It was unnatural and ungodly. The like had never been heard. And when, as time passed, the truth of Sara Dack’s utterances was manifest, the island folk decided, like the bos’n of the Starry Grace, that only the devil could have had a hand in so untoward a happening. And the infatuated woman, so Sara Dack reported, insisted that it would be a boy. “Eleven bairns ha’ I borne,” she said; “sux o’ them lossies an’ five o’ them loddies. An’ sunce there be balance un all thungs, so wull there be balance wuth me. Sux o’ one an’ half a dozen o’ the other—there uz the balance, an’ oz sure oz the sun rises un the marnun’, thot sure wull ut be a boy.”
And boy it was, and a prodigy. Dr. Hall raved about its unblemished perfection and massive strength, and wrote a brochure on it for the Dublin Medical Society as the most interesting case of the sort in his long career. When Sara Dack gave the babe’s unbelievable weight, Island McGill refused to believe and once again called her liar. But when Doctor Hall attested that he had himself weighed it and seen it tip that very notch, Island McGill held its breath and accepted whatever report Sara Dack made of the infant’s progress or appetite. And once again Margaret Henan carried a babe to Belfast and had it christened Samuel.
“Oz good oz gold ut was,” said Sara Dack to me.
Sara, at the time I met her, was a buxom, phlegmatic spinster of sixty, equipped with an experience so tragic and unusual that though her tongue ran on for decades its output would still be of imperishable interest to her cronies.
“Oz good oz good,” said Sara Dack. “Ut never fretted. Sut ut down un the sun by the hour an’ never a sound ut would make oz long oz ut was no hungered! An’ thot strong! The grup o’ uts honds was like a mon’s. I mind me, when ut was but hours old, ut grupped me so mighty thot I fetched a scream I was thot frightened. Ut was the punk o’ health. Ut slept an’ ate, an’ grew. Ut never bothered. Never a night’s sleep ut lost tull no one, nor ever a munut’s, an’ thot wuth cuttin’ uts teeth an’ all. An’ Margaret would dandle ut on her knee an’ ask was there ever so fine a loddie un the three Kungdoms.
“The way ut grew! Ut was un keepun’ wuth the way ut ate. Ot a year ut was the size o’ a bairn of two. Ut was slow tull walk an’ talk. Exceptun’ for gurgly noises un uts throat an’ for creepun’ on all fours, ut dudna monage much un the walkun’ an’ talkun’ line. But thot was tull be expected from the way ut grew. Ut all went tull growun’ strong an’ healthy. An’ even old Tom Henan cheered up ot the might of ut an’ said was there ever the like o’ ut un the three Kungdoms. Ut was Doctor Hall thot first suspicioned, I mind me well, though ut was luttle I dreamt what he was up tull ot the time. I seehum holdun’ thungs’ un fronto’ luttle Sammy’s eyes, an’ a-makun’ noises, loud an’ soft, an’ far an’ near, un luttle Sammy’s ears. An’ then I see Doctor Hall go away, wrunklun’ hus eyebrows an’ shakun’ hus head like the bairn was ailun’. But he was no ailun’, oz I could swear tull, me a-seeun’ hum eat an’ grow. But Doctor Hall no said a word tull Margaret an’ I was no for guessun’ the why he was sore puzzled.
“I mind me when luttle Sammy first spoke. He was two years old an’ the size of a child o five, though he could no monage the walkun’ yet but went around on all fours, happy an’ contented-like an’ makun’ no trouble oz long oz he was fed promptly, which was onusual often. I was hangun’ the wash on the line ot the time when out he comes, on all fours, hus bug head waggun’ tull an’ fro an’ blunkun’ un the sun. An’ then, suddent, he talked. I was thot took a-back I near died o’ fright, an’ fine I knew ut then, the shakun’ o’ Doctor Hall’s head. Talked? Never a bairn on Island McGill talked so loud an’ tull such purpose. There was no mustakun’ ut. I stood there all tremblun’ an’ shakun’. Little Sammy was brayun’. I tell you, sir, he was brayun’ like an ass—just like thot,—loud an’ long an’ cheerful tull ut seemed hus lungs ud crack.
“He was a eediot—a great, awful, monster eediot. Ut was after he talked thot Doctor Hall told Margaret, but she would no believe. Ut would all come right, she said. Ut was growun’ too fast for aught else. Guv ut time, said she, an’ we would see. But old Tom Henan knew, an’ he never held up hus head again. He could no abide the thung, an’ would no brung humsel’ tull touch ut, though I om no denyun’ he was fair fascinated by ut. Mony the time, I see hum watchun’ of ut around a corner, lookun’ ot ut tull hus eyes fair bulged wuth the horror; an’ when ut brayed old Tom ud stuck hus fungers tull hus ears an’ look thot miserable I could a-puttied hum.
“An’ bray ut could! Ut was the only thung ut could do besides eat an’ grow. Whenever ut was hungry ut brayed, an’ there was no stoppun’ ut save wuth food. An’ always of a marnun’, when first ut crawled tull the kutchen-door an’ blunked out ot the sun, ut brayed. An’ ut was brayun’ that brought about uts end.
“I mind me well. Ut was three years old an’ oz bug oz a led o’ ten. Old Tom hed been goun’ from bed tull worse, ploughun’ up an’ down the fields an’ talkun’ an’ mutterun’ tull humself. On the marnun’ o’ the day I mind me, he was suttun’ on the bench outside the kutchen, a-futtun’ the handle tull a puck-axe. Unbeknown, the monster eediot crawled tull the door an’ brayed after hus fashion ot the sun. I see old Tom start up an’ look. An’ there was the monster eediot, waggun’ uts bug head an’ blunkun’ an’ brayun’ like the great bug ass ut was. Ut was too much for Tom. Somethun’ went wrong wuth hum suddent-like. He jumped tull hus feet an’ fetched the puck-handle down on the monster eediot’s head. An’ he hut ut again an’ again like ut was a mod dog an’ hum afeard o’ ut. An’ he went straight tull the stable an’ hung humsel’ tull a rafter. An’ I was no for stoppun’ on after such-like, an’ I went tull stay along wuth me suster thot was married tull John Martin an’ comfortable-off.”
I sat on the bench by the kitchen door and regarded Margaret Henan, while with her callous thumb she pressed down the live fire of her pipe and gazed out across the twilight-sombred fields. It was the very bench Tom Henan had sat upon that last sanguinary day of life. And Margaret sat in the doorway where the monster, blinking at the sun, had so often wagged its head and brayed. We had been talking for an hour, she with that slow certitude of eternity that so befitted her; and, for the life of me, I could lay no finger on the motives that ran through the tangled warp and woof of her. Was she a martyr to Truth? Did she have it in her to worship at so abstract a shrine? Had she conceived Abstract Truth to be the one high goal of human endeavour on that day of long ago when she named her first-born Samuel? Or was hers the stubborn obstinacy of the ox? the fixity of purpose of the balky horse? the stolidity of the self-willed peasant-mind? Was it whim or fancy?—the one streak of lunacy in what was otherwise an eminently rational mind? Or, reverting, was hers the spirit of a Bruno? Was she convinced of the intellectual rightness of the stand she had taken? Was hers a steady, enlightened opposition to superstition? or—and a subtler thought—was she mastered by some vaster, profounder superstition, a fetish-worship of which the Alpha and the Omega was the cryptic Samuel?
“Wull ye be tellun’ me,” she said, “thot uf the second Samuel hod been named Larry thot he would no hov fell un the hot watter an’ drownded? Atween you an’ me, sir, an’ ye are untellugent-lookun’ tull the eye, would the name hov made ut onyways dufferent? Would the washun’ no be done thot day uf he hod been Larry or Michael? Would hot watter no be hot, an’ would hot watter no burn uf he hod hod ony other name but Samuel?”
I acknowledged the justice of her contention, and she went on.
“Do a wee but of a name change the plans o’ God? Do the world run by hut or muss, an’ be God a weak, shully-shallyun’ creature thot ud alter the fate an’ destiny o’ thungs because the worm Margaret Henan seen fut tull name her bairn Samuel? There be my son Jamie. He wull no sign a Rooshan-Funn un hus crew because o’ believun’ thot Rooshan-Funns do be monajun’ the wunds an’ hov the makun’ o’ bod weather. Wull you be thunkun’ so? Wull you be thunkun’ thot God thot makes the wunds tull blow wull bend Hus head from on high tull lussen tull the word o’ a greasy Rooshan-Funn un some dirty shup’s fo’c’sle?”
I said no, certainly not; but she was not to be set aside from pressing home the point of her argument.
“Then wull you be thunkun’ thot God thot directs the stars un their courses, an’ tull whose mighty foot the world uz but a footstool, wull you be thunkun’ thot He wull take a spite again’ Margaret Henan an’ send a bug wave off the Cape tull wash her son un tull eternity, all because she was for namun’ hum Samuel?”
“But why Samuel?” I asked.
“An’ thot I dinna know. I wantud ut so.”
“But why did you want it so?”
“An’ uz ut me thot would be answerun’ a such-like question? Be there ony mon luvun’ or dead thot can answer? Who can tell the why o’ like? My Jamie was fair daft on buttermilk, he would drunk ut tull, oz he said humself, hus back teeth was awash. But my Tumothy could no abide buttermilk. I like tull lussen tull the thunder growlun’ an’ roarun’, an’ rampajun’. My Katie could no abide the noise of ut, but must scream an’ flutter an’ go runnun’ for the mudmost o’ a feather-bed. Never yet hov I heard the answer tull the why o’ like, God alone hoz thot answer. You an’ me be mortal an’ we canna know. Enough for us tull know what we like an’ what we duslike. I like—thot uz the first word an’ the last. An’ behind thot like no men can go an’ find the why o’ ut. I like Samuel, an’ I like ut well. Ut uz a sweet name, an’ there be a rollun’ wonder un the sound o’ ut thot passes onderstandun’.”
The twilight deepened, and in the silence I gazed upon that splendid dome of a forehead which time could not mar, at the width between the eyes, and at the eyes themselves—clear, out-looking, and wide-seeing. She rose to her feet with an air of dismissing me, saying—
“Ut wull be a dark walk home, an’ there wull be more thon a sprunkle o’ wet un the sky.”
“Have you any regrets, Margaret Henan?” I asked, suddenly and without forethought.
She studied me a moment.
“Aye, thot I no ha’ borne another son.”
“And you would . . .?” I faltered.
“Aye, thot I would,” she answered. “Ut would ha’ been hus name.”
I went down the dark road between the hawthorn hedges puzzling over the why of like, repeating Samuel to myself and aloud and listening to the rolling wonder in its sound that had charmed her soul and led her life in tragic places. Samuel! There was a rolling wonder in the sound. Aye, there was!