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A short story by George A. Birmingham

A Royal Marriage

Title:     A Royal Marriage
Author: George A. Birmingham [More Titles by Birmingham]

Michael Kane carried His Majesty's mails from Clonmethan to the Island of Inishrua. He made the voyage twice a week in a big red boat fitted with a motor engine. He had as his partner a young man called Peter Gahan. Michael Kane was a fisherman, and had a knowledge of the ways of the strange tides which race and whirl in the channel between Inishrua and the mainland. Peter Gahan looked like an engineer. He knew something about the tides, but what he really understood was the motor engine. He was a grave and silent young man who read small books about Socialism. Michael Kane was grey-haired, much battered by the weather and rich in experience of life. He was garrulous and took a humorous view of most things, even of Peter Gahan's Socialism.

There are, perhaps, two hundred people living on Inishrua, but they do not receive many letters. Nor do they write many. Most of them neither write nor receive any letters at all. A post twice a week is quite sufficient for their needs, and Michael Kane is not very well paid for carrying the lean letter bag. But he makes a little money by taking parcels across to the island. The people of Inishrua grow, catch or shoot most of the things they want; but they cannot produce their own tea, tobacco, sugar or flour. Michael Kane takes orders for these and other things from Mary Nally, who keeps a shop on Inishrua. He buys them in Clonmethan and conveys them to the island. In this way he earns something. He also carries passengers and makes a little out of them.

Last summer, because it was stormy and wet, was a very lean season for Michael Kane. Week after week he made his journeys to Inishrua without a single passenger. Towards the middle of August he began to give up hope altogether.

He and Peter sat together one morning on the end of the pier. The red post boat hung at her moorings outside the little harbour. The day was windless and the sea smooth save for the ocean swell which made shorewards in a long procession of round-topped waves. It was a day which might have tempted even a timid tourist to visit the island. But there was no sign of anyone approaching the pier.

"I'm thinking," said Michael Kane, "that we may as well be starting. There'll be no one coming with us the day."

But he was mistaken. A passenger, an eager-looking young woman, was hurrying towards the pier while they were making up their minds to start.

Miss Ivy Clarence had prepared herself for a voyage which seemed to her something of an adventure. She wore a tight-fitting knitted cap, a long, belted, waterproof coat, meant originally to be worn by a soldier in the trenches in France. She had a thick muffler round her neck. She carried a rug, a packet of sandwiches, a small handbag and an umbrella, of all possible accoutrements the least likely to be useful in an open boat. But though she carried an umbrella, Miss Clarence did not look like a fool. She might know nothing about boats and the way to travel in them, but she had a bright, intelligent face and a self-confident decision of manner. She was by profession a journalist, and had conceived the idea of visiting Ireland and writing articles about that unfortunate country. Being an intelligent journalist she knew that articles about the state of Ireland are overdone and very tiresome. Nobody, especially during the holiday season, wants to be bored with Irish politics. But for bright, cheery descriptions of Irish life and customs, as for similar descriptions of the ways of other strange peoples, there is always a market. Miss Clarence determined to exploit it. She planned to visit five or six of the larger islands off the Irish coast. There, if anywhere, quaint customs, picturesque superstitions and primitive ways of living might still be found.

Michael greeted her as if she had been an honoured guest. He was determined to make the trip as pleasant as he could for anyone who was wise enough to leave the tennis-courts and the golf-links.

"It's a grand day for seeing Inishrua," he said. "Not a better day there's been the whole summer up to now. And why wouldn't it be fine? It would be a queer day that wouldn't when a young lady like yourself is wanting to go on the sea."

This was the kind of speech, flattering, exaggerated, slightly surprising, which Michael Kane was accustomed to make to his passengers. Miss Clarence did not know that something of the same sort was said to every lady, young or old, who ventured into Michael's boat. She was greatly pleased and made a mental note of the words.

Michael Kane and Peter Gahan went over to a dirty and dilapidated boat which lay on the slip. They seized her by the gunwale, raised her and laid her keel on a roller. They dragged her across the slip and launched her, bow first, with a loud splash.

"Step easy now, miss," said Michael, "and lean on my shoulder. Give the young lady your hand, Peter. Can't you see the stones is slippy?"

Peter was quite convinced that all members of the bourgeois class ought to be allowed, for the good of society, to break their legs on slippery rocks. But he was naturally a courteous man. He offered Miss Clarence an oily hand and she got safely into the boat.

The engine throbbed and the screw under the rudder revolved slowly. The boat slid forward, gathering speed, and headed out to sea for Inishrua.

Michael Kane began to talk. Like a pianist who strikes the notes of his instrument tentatively, feeling about for the right key, he touched on one subject after another, confident that in the end he would light on something really interesting to his passenger. Michael Kane was happy in this, that he could talk equally well on all subjects. He began with the coast scenery, politics and religion, treating these thorny topics with such detachment that no one could have guessed what party or what church he belonged to. Miss Clarence was no more than moderately interested. He passed on to the Islanders of Inishrua, and discovered that he had at last reached the topic he was seeking. Miss Clarence listened eagerly to all he said. She even asked questions, after the manner of intelligent journalists.

"If it's the island people you want to see, miss," he said, "it's well you came this year. There'll be none of them left soon. They're dying out, so they are."

Miss Clarence thought of a hardy race of men wringing bare subsistence from a niggardly soil, battered by storms, succumbing slowly to the impossible conditions of their island. She began to see her way to an article of a pathetic kind.

"It's sleep that's killing them off," said Michael Kane.

Miss Clarence was startled. She had heard of sleeping sickness, but had always supposed it to be a tropical disease. It surprised her to hear that it was ravaging an island like Inishrua.

"Men or women, it's the same," said Michael. "They'll sleep all night and they'll sleep the most of the day. Not a tap of work will be done on the island, summer or winter."

"But," said Miss Clarence, "how do they live?"

"They'll not live long," said Michael. "Amn't I telling you that they're dying out? It's the sleep that's killing them."

Miss Clarence drew a large notebook and a pencil from her bag. Michael was greatly pleased. He went on to tell her that the Inishrua islanders had become enormously rich during the war. Wrecked ships had drifted on to their coasts in dozens. They had gathered in immense stores of oil, petrol, cotton, valuable wood and miscellaneous merchandise of every kind. There was no need for them to work any more. Digging, ploughing, fishing, toil of every kind was unnecessary. All they had to do was eat and sleep, waking up now and then for an hour or two to sell their spoils to eager buyers who came to them from England.

Michael could have gone on talking about the immense riches of the islanders. He would have liked to enlarge upon the evil consequences of having no work to do, the inevitable extinction which waits for those who merely sleep. But he was conscious that Peter Gahan was becoming uneasy. As a good socialist, Peter knew that work is an unnecessary evil, and that men will never be healthy or happy until they escape from the tyranny of toil He was not likely to listen patiently to Michael's doctrine that a race of sleepers is doomed to extinction. At any moment he might burst into the conversation argumentatively. And Michael Kane did not want that. He liked to do all the talking himself. He switched off the decay of the islanders and started a new subject which he hoped would be equally interesting to Miss Clarence.

"It's a lucky day you have for visiting the island," he said. "But sure you know that yourself, and there's no need for me to be telling you."

Beyond the fact that the day was moderately fine, Miss Clarence did not know that there was anything specially lucky about it. She looked enquiringly at Michael Kane.

"It's the day of the King's wedding," said Michael.

To Miss Clarence "the King" suggested his Majesty George V. But he married some time ago, and she did not see why the islanders should celebrate an event of which most people have forgotten the date. She cast round in her mind for another monarch likely to be married; but she could not think of any. There are not, indeed, very many kings left in the world now. Peter Gahan gave a vicious dab at his engine with his oil-can, and then emerged feet first from the shelter of the fore deck. This talk about kings irritated him.

"It's the publican down by the harbour Michael Kane's speaking about," he said. "King, indeed! What is he, only an old man who's a deal too fat!"

"He may be fat," said Michael; "but if he is, he's not the first fat man to get married. And he's a king right enough. There's always been a king on Inishrua, the same as in England."

Miss Clarence was aware--she had read the thing somewhere--that the remoter and less civilised islands off the Irish Coast are ruled by chieftains to whom their people give the title of King.

"The woman he's marrying," said Michael, "is one by the name of Mary Nally, the same that keeps the post-office and sells tobacco and tea and suchlike."

"If he's marrying her to-day," said Peter Gahan, "it's the first I heard of it."

"That may be," said Michael, "but if you was to read less you'd maybe hear more. You'd hardly believe," he turned to Miss Clarence with a smile--"you'd hardly believe the time that young fellow wastes reading books and the like. There isn't a day passes without he'd be reading something, good or bad."

Peter Gahan, thoroughly disgusted, crept under the fore deck again and squirted drops of oil out of his can.

Miss Clarence ought to have been interested in the fact that the young boatman was fond of reading. His tastes in literature and his eagerness for knowledge and culture would have provided excellent matter for an article. But the prospect of a royal marriage on Inishrua excited her, and she had no curiosity left for Peter Gahan and his books. She asked a string of eager questions about the festivities. Michael was perfectly willing to supply her with information; indeed, the voyage was not long enough for all her questions and his answers. Before the subject was exhausted the boat swung round a rocky point into the bay where the Inishrua harbour lies.

"You see the white cottage with the double gable, Miss," said Michael. "Well, it's there Mary Nally lives. And that young lad crossing the field is her brother coming down for the post-bag. The yellow house with the slates on it is where the king lives. It's the only slated house they have on the island. God help them!"

Peter Gahan slowed and then stopped his engine. The boat slipped along a grey stone pier. Michael stepped ashore and made fast a couple of ropes. Then he gave his hand to Miss Clarence and helped her to disembark.

"If you're thinking of taking a walk through the island, Miss," he said, "you'll have time enough. There's no hurry in the world about starting home. Two hours or three will be all the same to us."

Michael Kane was in no hurry. Nor was Peter Gahan, who had taken a pamphlet from his pocket and settled himself on the edge of the pier with his feet dangling over the water. But Miss Clarence felt that she had not a moment to lose. She did not want to miss a single detail of the wedding festivities. She stood for an instant uncertain whether she should go first to the yellow, slated house of the bridegroom or cross the field before her to the double-gabled cottage where the bride lived. She decided to go to the cottage. In any ordinary wedding the bride's house is the scene of most activity, and no doubt the same rule holds good in the case of royal marriages.

The door of the cottage stood open, and Miss Clarence stepped into a tiny shop. It was the smallest shop she had ever seen, but it was crammed from ceiling to floor with goods.

Behind the counter a woman of about thirty years of age sat on a low stool. She was knitting quietly, and showed no sign whatever of the excitement which usually fills a house on the day of a wedding. She looked up when Miss Clarence entered the shop. Then she rose and laid aside her knitting. She had clear, grey eyes, an unemotional, self-confident face, and a lean figure.

"I came to see Miss Mary Nally," said Miss Clarence. "Perhaps if she isn't too busy I could have a chat with her."

"Mary Nally's my name," said the young woman quietly.

Miss Clarence was surprised at the calm and self-possession of the woman before her. She had, in the early days of her career as a journalist, seen many brides. She had never seen one quite so cool as Mary Nally. And this woman was going to marry a king! Miss Clarence, startled out of her own self-control, blurted out more than she meant to say.

"But--but aren't you going to be married?" she said.

Mary Nally smiled without a sign of embarrassment.

"Maybe I am," she said, "some day."

"To-day," said Miss Clarence.

Mary Nally, pulling aside a curtain of pendent shirts, looked out through the window of the little shop. She knew that the post boat had arrived at the pier and that her visitor, a stranger on the island, must have come in her. She wanted to make sure that Michael Kane was on board.

"I suppose now," she said, "that it was Michael Kane told you that. And it's likely old Andrew that he said I was marrying."

"He said you were going to marry the King of the island," said Miss Clarence.

"Well," said Mary Nally, "that would be old Andrew."

"But isn't it true?" said Miss Clarence.

A horrible suspicion seized her. Michael Kane might have been making a fool of her.

"Michael Kane would tell you lies as quick as look at you," she said; "but maybe it wasn't lies he was telling this time. Come along now and we'll see."

She lifted the flap of the counter behind which she sat and passed into the outer part of the shop. She took Miss Clarence by the arm and they went together through the door. Miss Clarence expected to be led down to the pier. It seemed to her plain that Mary Nally must want to find out from Michael whether he had told this outrageous story or not. She was quite willing to face the old boatman. Mary Nally would have something bitter to say to him. She herself would say something rather more bitter and would say it more fiercely.

Mary turned to the right and walked towards the yellow house with the slate roof. She entered it, pulling Miss Clarence after her.

An oldish man, very fat, but healthy looking and strong, sat in an armchair near the window of the room they entered. Round the walls were barrels of porter. On the shelves were bottles of whisky. In the middle of the floor, piled one on top of the other, were three cases full of soda-water bottles.

"Andrew," said Mary Nally, "there's a young lady here says that you and me is going to be married."

"I've been saying as much myself this five years," said Andrew. "Ever since your mother died. And I don't know how it is we never done it."

"It might be," said Mary, "because you never asked me."

"Sure, where was the use of my asking you," said Andrew, "when you knew as well as myself and everyone else that it was to be?"

"Anyway," said Mary, "the young lady says we're doing it, and, what's more, we're doing it to-day. What have you to say to that now, Andrew?"

Andrew chuckled in a good-humoured and tolerant way.

"What I'd say to that, Mary," he said, "is that it would be a pity to disappoint the young lady if her heart's set on it."

"It's not my heart that's set on it," said Miss Clarence indignantly. "I don't care if you never get married. It's your own hearts, both of them, that ought to be set on it."

As a journalist of some years' experience she had, of course, outgrown all sentiment. But she was shocked by the cool indifference of these lovers who were prepared to marry merely to oblige a stranger whom they had never seen before and were not likely to see again. But Mary Nally did not seem to feel that there was any want of proper ardour in Andrew's way of settling the date of their wedding.

"If you don't get up out of your chair," she said, "and be off to Father McFadden to tell him what's wanted, it'll never be done either to-day or any other day."

Andrew roused himself with a sigh. He took his hat from a peg, and a stout walking-stick from behind a porter barrel. Then, politely but firmly, he put the two women out of the house and locked the door behind them. He was ready to marry Mary Nally--and her shop. He was not prepared to trust her among his porter barrels and his whisky bottles until the ceremony was actually completed.

The law requires that a certain decorous pause shall be made before the celebration of a marriage. Papers must be signed or banns published in church. But Father McFadden had lived so long on Inishrua that he had lost respect for law and perhaps forgotten what the law was. Besides, Andrew was King of the island by right of popular assent, and what is the use of being a king if you cannot override a tiresome law? The marriage took place that afternoon, and Miss Clarence was present, acting as a kind of bridesmaid.

No sheep or heifers were killed, and no inordinate quantity of porter was drunk. There was, indeed, no special festivity on the island, and the other inhabitants took very little notice of what was happening. They were perhaps, as Michael Kane said, too sleepy to be stirred with excitement. But in spite of the general apathy, Miss Clarence was fairly well satisfied with her experience. She felt that she had a really novel subject for the first of her articles on the life and customs of the Irish islanders.

The one thing that vexed her was the thought that Michael Kane had been laughing at her while he talked to her on the way out to the island. On the way home she spoke to him severely.

"You've no right," she said, "to tell a pack of lies to a stranger who happens to be a passenger in your boat."

"Lies!" said Michael. "What lie was in it? Didn't I say they'd be married to-day, and they were?"

Miss Clarence might have retorted that no sheep or heifers had been killed and very little porter drunk, but she preferred to leave these details aside and stick to her main point.

"But they didn't mean to be married," she said, "and you told me----"

"Begging your pardon, Miss," said Michael, "but they did mean it. Old Andrew has been meaning it ever since Mrs. Nally died and left Mary with the shop. And Mary was willing enough to go with him any day he asked her. It's what I was telling you at the first go off. Them island people is dying out for the want of being able to keep from going to sleep. You seen yourself the way it was. Them ones never would have been married at all only for your going to Inishrua and waking them up. It's thankful to you they ought to be."

He appealed to Peter Gahan, who was crouching beside his engine under the fore-deck.

"Oughtn't they to be thankful to the young lady, Peter," he said, "seeing they'd never have been married only for her?"

Peter Gahan looked out from his shelter and scowled. According to the teaching of the most advanced Socialists the marriage tie is not a blessing but a curse.

[The end]
George A. Birmingham's short story: A Royal Marriage