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The Warder

ISSUE:  Autumn 1940

The village kids said they fell out with Inch Moran because she had “leveled” Padna Calla with a stone. That was true, as far as it went. But it was not the reason; for, as the world knows, or should know, there is every difference between causes and reasons. The reason they had outlawed Inch was that their fathers and mothers had suddenly developed a violent hatred for her da: they had turned against him because he was a warder in the jail, because Bantry the tramp was going to be hanged there in two weeks time for the murder of Boody Bess, and they were sorry for Bantry, and terrified of the thought of his death. They did not know themselves that that was the cause of their hatred of the man. As for the reason for their terrors and their hates. . . .

Nobody had seen this connection between the warder and the murderer until the very end of the trial. Up to the very last day, and the very last moment, they thought and talked only of Bantry and Boody: did he do it, would he get off, why did he do it, would he be certified; and then they would go again and look down at the dark pool under the alders where she was found, floating on her back, with her hair spread and her eyes wide open and her forehead all staved-in; or stare into the mouth of the cave where the police found Bantry crouching in the dark with the starting-handle still clutched in his fist.

But that first night after the verdict, when they looked out at the jail tower, and saw the solitary light, and somebody mentioned Lank Moran, they began at once to see Moran locking Bantry into his cell, feeding him his breakfast every morning (for some reason vaguely connected with the idea that condemned men get anything they ask for on the last morning they thought only of his breakfast), and they saw Moran leading Bantry by the arm to the drop, and they even saw Moran holding the greased rope for Pierpoint the hangman. . . . At once they linked the forthcoming execution with everything they had disliked in the man, his coldness to them all, his hard indifference. Even his uniform, that did not have as much as a silver button on it, was connected with death in their minds. They spliced everything he did into their own horror of the hanging. He was a great hand at fretwork, and when they saw his light shining late at night they saw it as a kind of counterpart to the solitary light in the tower. Mrs, Calla said it gave her the shivers to see him digging in his garden. They loathed his job, forgetting that they had often envied it.

Above all, they looked with the awe of new understanding at the two unfortunate children of his first wife. These mild-eyed poor creatures never spoke above a whisper, and never finished a sentence: they would say, “We want to,” and stop, or “This is the,” and forget the end; they spent their lives walking hand in hand up and down the road the livelong day, or sitting in the dormer window of their cottage, gazing out of blank eyeballs, like statues, across the river at the swimming pool where the bodies of the village lads flashed in the sun. The two idiot children, they felt, marked him off from other men even in the nature of his misfortunes.

The result of this kind of talk was that within two days the village children began to torment Moran. Where it had once been just a game to run up to him and ask him the time, in order to see him stop dead and say “Sir?” in a loud voice, take out his big silver watch, rub the celluloid guard with a lean thumb, and after saying solemnly, “Time and tide wait for no man,” walk off without a word; or fun to knock at his door and ask to see his fretwork, in the hope that he would come out in his grey flannel shirtsleeves from the washtub, for he never allowed a woman into his home; or another game to stop him at his topiary work in the garden and ask, politely, “Mr. Moran, is that a hen or a cock you’re making,” to hear him growl “Run along or I’ll boil your bones in vinegar and make soup of them,”—they now did all these things with cruel malice. Having run to a safe distance, then, they would chant in chorus:

Proddywooddy greengut, Never said a prayer, Catch him by his long legs And throw him down the stairs. The stairs broke in, Proddy broke his back, And Lankypanky Moran Said, Quack! Quack! Quack!

He would return to his topiary, pretending not to hear.

But Inch, like them, and unlike the parents, had not pretended. The day the youngest Calla child sneered at her, “Your da does be always beating little boys in the cells,” she took up a stone and leveled him, leaving the gang staring in horror after the bloody child as he ran bawling home to his mother that Inch Moran was after murdering him dead. That night the gang swore not to speak to Inch, come what come may, for the rest of the summer. So for two long weeks, up to the very day of the hanging, they had outlawed her. It was a hard punishment. It meant that she could not go out into the fields, for ever since the murder the children were not allowed to go outside the village alone; and in any case they were afraid to go. She was imprisoned in the house, or in their tiny garden where she would sit, high up on a level with her two sisters in their dormer window, on top of an outdoor stone stairs that climbed for ten steps and then stopped in mid-air—the remains of some old structure. Amid the lobelia, the stonecrop, the wallflowers, the madder of valerian, she looked a forlorn imp on her lonely throne: fat legged, rosy, with red sausage curls across her forehead, a funny old-fashioned coat with many capes like a Lilliputian highwayman, and her two green eyes blazing with a divil-ment that had no outlet. Absurdly, the only people who talked to her for those two long weeks were the mothers filling their buckets at the pump below on the pavement. Forgetfully they would ask why she didn’t go and play with the other children. She would say, haughtily, “I’m quite happy as I am, thank you. I have my thoughts to think. They’re very interesting thoughts, and very typical.” At which the mothers would say to themselves, pumping convulsively, “She’s her father’s daughter!”


It was very quiet in the village, on the eve of the hanging, and as Inch sat, broody, on her aerial perch, plotting with the two statues—as she had been doing for days and days— how to break the ranks of the enemy, she could hardly hear a sound. The river was at ebb. The turbines in the waterworks, whereby the village lived, were stopped. The only sound was when somebody threw a bucket of slops across the road, or when she heard the voices of the gang ringing in the distance. Always up to now when she fell out with the gang —as, being a thorough little bully and boss, she had often done—she had won them back after a few days; enticed first one, then another, until she finally had them all, with some grand plan they could not resist, such as promise of a marvelous picnic (she was a born organizer), or news of a gorgeous new plank, their word for a secret haunt of blackberries, or mushrooms, or wild-crabs. This time not a soul approached her. And there were the wide fields breaking with whitethorn, and celandines, and wild arum. There were the clouds stealing away over the hills, saying, “Come on, come on.” While she, as she told her father in a fury the night before, was left there “like an abandoned female!”

Suddenly she saw Rory Baked Beans below her on the road. He was hardly one of the gang, too young to be initiated. At any other time she would have told him to run along and wipe his nose. This time she seized her chance like lightning.

“Hullo, Rory boy I” she greeted, the title the basest flattery.

“Hullo, Inch girl!” said Rory.

“How’s yeer cat these days?” asked Inch politely.

He lighted up instantly. “She have hundreds of kittens. But,”—sadly—”they’re all blind.”

“All kittens is blind,” explained Inch. “Pups is blind, too. That’s because they’re born in the dark and aren’t used to the light.”

“Gor!” said Rory, in wonder at her vast knowledge. Then, recollecting himself: “What dark were they born in?”

“In the coal-hole, of course, you fooleen,” said Inch. “All kittens and pups is born in coal-holes.”

Rory agreed, pondering on the interesting fact. Inch began to tempt him.

“I know,” she whispered, “where there’s a nest of young larks. Larks is never born blind. Will you come out along with me in the morning and we’ll see them?”

Rory hesitated but looked fondly up the river at the softening tops of the beechweeds. Inch went on: “I have a cocoa-tin that we could boil tea in. I have tuppence my da gave me. We could have a massive picnic. Them too,” pointing to her sisters, “would come with us, though the Lord knows they’re not much use to God or man.”

“Where is it?” asked Rory.

Inch swept out her arm with a gesture worthy of a generalissimo.

“Were you ever out to the tip-top of Pike Hill?” she asked.

“What’s there?” he bargained.

“Mrs. Calla,” said Inch, and it was a sign of her ruthless genius that she did not even think of the Calla child she had leveled with the stone, but that her eyes dilated instead with the vastness of her uncontrollable as indefinable image, “Mrs. Calla says that when you’d get to the top of Pike Hill and look down you’d see nothing! Imagine it, Rory boy— out and out as far as we can go, and look down, and see Nothing!”

“Is it . . . is it out beyond the wood where they caught Bantry?”

“Miles farther,” said Inch, without a tremor.

“Is it out beyond the quarry where they found Boody Bess?” whispered Rory, fearful of giving offense even as he said it. He did not know his Inch.

“Miles beyond that,” laughed Inch. “Out and out and out!”

That silenced them both. Their minds broke the bounds of their own power of imagination. The far cries of the gang sank away. The setting sun caught only the ripples by the graveled islands of the river. Somebody called Rory’s name but he did not stir. Inch knew she had him; yet she still played him, with caution.

“We’ll start in the early morning,” she lured. “Come up and sit here and we’ll plan it.”

He came in and up. The two vacant sisters still gazed away at the slow dusk with the patient eyes of cows. Inch put her arms about him.

“We’ll go out and out,” she crooned.

“Out and out? And out?”

“And we’ll climb. And look down.”

“Yoy! We’ll look down, Inch.”

“And see Nothing.”


Again the mother’s voice called, despairingly, to Rory. Dark was fallen. The two statues did not budge. The river had become more audible with the fall of night. Beyond the treetops, the rounded domes of the sycamores, the sea-weedy elms, the serrated pines, the unrecognizable furry fuzziness of farthest woods, there rose the hexagonal tower of the jail. The solitary light shone in its tower. Inch saw it with indifference. She was defeating it.


That next morning she had all the joy and all the triumph of freedom. The four of them were already approaching the round hilltop before the dew was yet dry on the grassy margins. She had seen the village kids look with envy after her as she led her opposition down the street. She knew that when she came back she would have such stories that she would have no trouble in leading a larger expedition the following morning. Within three days she would be King of the Castle once again. Her thoughts levitated her so that she kept the three of them fast on the march, and before they realized it they had left the village far behind and were looking on unfamiliar country. The river was away below them; cattle stood in it, tiny and black. To the west, forty miles away, they saw a neat row of mountains, eight or ten little blue hunchbacks with white caps on their heads. It was the wide world. Hand in hand the four of them left the road and marched up the slope to the globe of green hill, as to a sacrificial altar.

“We’ll picnic on the top,” panted Inch, and the grouped trees right and left of the dome of grass invited them.

At last they were on top, sweaty and worn but triumphant. They saw more mountains beyond the hunchbacks. The river crept like a cat through the land. A breath of mist revealed it when the woods hid it. If it was not Nothing it was as endless and as bottomless. Inch recovered first of all, threw out her hand and said grandly to Rory Baked Beans, “Well! There you are!”

It did not occur to the children, however, to turn around and look the way they had come until a man and a young woman came walking slowly up the hill, and, reaching them, nodded and smiled, and began to look towards the village through a pair of field glasses. Inch turned too. The familiar spire, the familiar web of smoke, and the hexagonal tower all but killed her first wild emotion of being outward bound. It was the tug of the anchor. The four kids listened to the grown-ups.

“There you are!” said the man suddenly, with the field glasses stuck to his eyes. “I see it!”

“Show me, darling,” said the young woman, and she took the glasses, focused them, and said, “Yes, there it is. It’s quite clear now. I can see it fluttering.”

“It is black, isn’t it?” said the man.

“It’s black all right,” she mumbled, still staring, fascinated.

“If Pierpoint really didn’t come,” he said, “I wonder who they got to do it.”

“Oh, some warder,” she said idly. “I believe they have to give him ten pounds to do it,”

“May I have another look, dear?” said the man testily, itching to get the glasses back.

He looked again. Then she looked. Then they got tired of looking at the flag and began to focus idly this way and that. At last, with another smile for the kids, they wandered away downhill. None of the kids had seemed to understand them. Inch, like her two vacant stepsisters, was staring away at the mountains, and at the river that gently turned its white belly like a fish whenever the sun through cloud passed slowly across it. Rory was stitching daisies into a chain. Silently they prepared the picnic. Then they played a game. Then Inch wandered off by herself. The long day leaked away. Rory got tired and wanted to go home, but she would not and would not. He kept saying, “Why?” She kept saying, “Just because!”

They quarreled and she abused him and he cried. At last he said, “There’s nothing to see here,” and sank down and fell asleep under a tree. The hunchbacks became transparent as the sun sank behind them and the sky widened with mackerel backs and pink mare’s tails. Rory went off and then came back from some lonely expedition. Inch waked up the two mad sisters who were asleep in one another’s arms.

“We must go home, now,” she said, and gave one last long look at the vast world where only the river was bright now. They packed up, and dragged their legs home along the dusty road and finally came to the first cottage. Like lambs to the stall the two sisters went into their house, and Rory went to Mrs. Calla’s for his tea. Inch would not go with any of them. She stood in the dark and kicked stones with her boot toe. Mrs. Calla came out, then, and made her come into her house for her supper.

The gossips dropped in one by one, but seeing Inch they did not talk. Nobody said a word about the hanging, only from time to time Mrs. Calla kept rubbing Inch’s poll and saying, “Poor child I God help you!” Dadda Calla, whose job it was to scrape the wrack from the waterworks gratings, asked her where she spent the day. She said, lightly, “Over the hills and far away.”

“Whatdyeat?” said Dadda, all in one word, which was the way he always talked, as if he had marbles in his mouth and was afraid they’d all fall out.

“Sweets and cakes,” said Inch, very grand in her manner.

“A hake-o’-fish’d -be-betthher,” growled Dadda. “Hake-o’-fish-andaloado’spuds!”

“And what’d ye see, childeen bawn?” asked Mrs. Calla, stroking her hand.

“Oh, nothing,” said Inch. “Nothing. But it was quite interesting, thank you,” she added primly. “It was very typical and interesting to all of us.”

“And will you be going out there now soon again, a grab, with the rest of the children?” asked Mrs. Calla, pressing the little fat hand.

“No thank you,” said Inch, getting up. “And now I must be going. My father will be expecting me.” They let her go—alone. At the door she looked up at the sky, and said, “It’s a starry night. A starry night for a ramble.” And fled, choking.

She stayed out as long as she dared. She kicked more stones. Then she got afraid. Tossing her curls she went into her home.

He was by the fire, in a heavy sleep. A piece of fretwork hung dangling from his hand. It had got as far as God Save Our Gracious Ki. She smelled him, and said to herself, hopefully, “I suppose it’s the whisky.” She went up to bed. The two sisters were awake, staring at the ceiling, side by side. She got into bed. beside them. At long last she heard him come heavily up the stairs, go to his room, and after a while the bed springs creaked. She heard a faint sound of water over the weir, and wondered at it because of the drouth. Then she realized that it was her father, whimpering in his sleep like a little dog.

In the morning he passed through the village, smoking his off-duty pipe, as cold and indifferent and independent of them all as ever.


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