by Agnes Murphy (1865-1931)
The opening chapter of Agnes Murphy’s only novel, One woman’s wisdom, following Teresa Pitt’s review which appeared on Wednesday.
Book 1, Chapter 1
The smoke curled lazily above the thatched roof of a cottage of poor appearance, situation amid the barren hills of western Clare, as a child, apparently about nine years old, hurried out of its rudely fashioned entrance, murmuring the while:
“I wonder how I could walk home!”
The words were uttered in plaintive self interrogation, and the child continued to repeat them as she walked slowly down a winding “boreen”, which had its terminus at the in-wash of a broad but shallow stream coursing between the rugged limestone hills. On reaching the bank, Mary Hewson sat down and for the moment busied herself in conjecturing what could be the use of the several sloping stones which were carefully arranged so as to sand half out of the water.
One need not have heard the little girl’s question to know that she was recently transplanted from much gentler surroundings; for her dress and general appearance betokened a very limited connection with the poor residents of the district, to whose natural laundry-place she had listlessly wandered.
Her face wore an expression of intense earnestness and enquiry, which indicated that for the time, her whole thought was centred in the question which she lisped again and again in tones of mournful wonder. In physical appearance, there was nothing special to distinguish her from other children of her years, albeit her deep-set, blue-grey eyes rather frequently assumed an expression of intense thoughtfulness which is happily not common to childhood. Her hair was short and curly, and of that flaxen shade which seldom changes with advancing years. Her tall spare figure was neatly dressed in fine black fabric which, taken with her boots and embroidered pinafore, was of an order never seen in the neighbourhood. She swung in her hand a broad-brimmed, black hat, and as the wind tossed the curls from her forehead it could be seen that her eyes bore traces of recent tears.
“I wonder how I could walk home!”
While engaged in the attempted solution of this momentous interrogatory, her attention was suddenly arrested by the appearance on the hill-side of a young peasant girl, whose notes of natural melody echoed across the valley, and charmed Mary into an attitude of spell-bound interest. The girl was dressed in strict accordance with the custom of the parish, her whole costume being of coarse flannel woven in the neighbourhood; the outer skirt, which was turned up and fasted a little below the waist, differing only from the under petticoat in that matter of colour.
The child, who was now intently watching the approaching figure of the rustic vocalist had, for the minute, found a new interest in her advent. As the peasant approached within a few yards of Mary’s resting place, the latter stared frankly at her and then, for some reason born of her loneliness and anxiety, walked close up to the new-comer, who had by this time abandoned her song in order to devote her whole attention to the young stranger.
In a district so sparsely populated the apparition of even a passing peasant was an event of some importance; and the appearance of a solitary child in a dress of city mourning, for the moment called up in Nellie Casey’s mind all the stories of goblin and fairy which made the romance of the county. The fear – or hope – of supernatural visitation was but transitory, and the peasant’s face wore a look of admiring question when Mary gazed into her eyes, and smiled.
“How can you carry that big flat tub on your head without putting your hand to it?” she asked.
“Oh,” replied Nellie, lifting the tub from her head, and holding out a small circlet of twisted cloth, “I use a roller, because I’m not over strong; but most of the girls can carry to market large pails of milk on their bare heads, without a touch from their hands, and that for miles too. Indeed, I know one who always drives an ass, laden with potatoes, at the same time.”
“What are those sloping stones for?” said Mary, as she pointed to the convex stones already mentioned as standing half out of the water in the shallow in-wash of the river.
“Myself and the neighbours come here to do our washing,” answered Nellie, who at the moment placed some partly washed articles on one of the stones, and commenced to beat them vigorously with a flat wooden club, known in the locality as a “beetle.” Having rinsed the clothes, which were all linen or woollen of local spinning, Nellie Casey arranged them neatly in the tub, and then allowed herself leisure and courage to question Mary.
“Have ye wandered out from town, or are ye staying up at the Hall?” she ventured.
“I came from Summerhill yesterday, to stay here for years; and I am to live with my uncle, Mr. Hewson, who lives there;” and she pointed to a small thatched house about a quarter of a mile away.
John Hewson was a peasant farmer, of whom many said that he had “known better days;” but in his home, his dress, or his mode of living there was little to indicate that he had ever been familiar with more luxurious surroundings, beyond the fact that he was educated better than his neighbours, and had conferred the same privilege on his sons.
Nellie Casey was the daughter of a family whose circumstances were almost exactly similar to those of the Hewsons, and, on hearing the relationship between the new-comer and her neighbours, her first thought was one of great gratification that Slane had become possessed of so new an interest.
“Is Summerhill a big place? And how far is it away?” she asked.
“Yes, a very big town, the capital of the county and the place where I always lived. It takes two days to get there by train and mail-car, and I looked at the geography this morning to see how many miles away it is. ‘Tis nearly a hundred and fifty miles off,” she said, half sadly, and then with a sudden change of expression,’ the child hurriedly asked, “Did you ever hear of anybody walking that far?”
“In troth, no, except the tinkers, the spiteful wretches! and it takes them a year to walk a hundred miles, because they turn every side to rob the people. No one else has ever walked that far.”
Nellie was ignorant of the reason for Mary’s enquiry, and the disheartening nature of the reply brought hot tears to the eyes of the child, who, in order to hide her emotion, turned and fled before Nellie could put another question.
From: Murphy, Agnes, One woman’s wisdom (George Routledge and Sons: Manchester and New York, 1895) – link is to SLNSW digital collections where the book can be read online