From Across the Ancient Waters
By Michael Phillips
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2012 Michael Phillips
All rights reserved.
A girl of indeterminate age stole with stealthy step into a narrow lane leading perpendicular to the central dirt road of a coastal village in North Wales.
Whether she had just pinched a sweetie from the post or a halfpenny roll from the baker, the quick furtive glance behind as she disappeared from view of the three or four humble shops of the place would surely prompt an observer to think, whatever her business, that she was up to no good.
The tiny flaxen scamp was soon swallowed by shadows of high stone rising on both sides of her. Immediately she broke into a run.
Noiseless as they were swift, her steps took her quickly through the buildings of the village. Moments later she was racing across a wide green pasture. Several black-and- white cattle grazing in its midst paid the flight of the girl no heed.
In truth, the small Celtic lass was no thief at all. That her two hands and the single pocket of her threadbare dress were empty gave all the proof necessary that nothing untoward had taken place during the three or four minutes in which she had darted into the village and out again unseen. In actual fact, her exit had been made with one less encumbrance on her person than she had entered with. Her errand on this day had been one of giving not taking. She had been discharging a debt of kindness from her young heart.
The only evidence left behind that she had been in Llanfryniog at all was a small bouquet of wildflowers—dandelions and daisies mostly, with a few yellow buttercups sprinkled among them—plucked on her way into the village from the field next to the one through which she now ran. She would have left something of greater value on the latch to Mistress Chattan's side door if she had had it. But the blooms were free and abundant, available to all for the having, and the only gift she could afford to bequeath. Flowers were thus the normal commodity of the unusual commerce in which she engaged.
At this hour of late afternoon, the front door of the inn swung back and forth on its hinges every few minutes. This was the time of day when the region's miners came to relax with their afternoon pint before trudging home to their suppers. Already the place was bustling with animated talk and laughter as ale and an occasional whiskey flowed from Mistress Chattan's hand. The tiny bouquet on the door of the lane that opened into her private quarters remained unseen for some time.
What manner of woman it was who thus served the men of the mine their daily ration of liquibrious good cheer was an inquiry that would have provoked heated discussion among the respectable wives and mothers of Llanfryniog. Though they were no more genteel than she, they were far from pleased that their husbands made such regular visits to her establishment. That the thirsty miners and fishermen of the region contributed so much to the health of Mistress Chattan's cash box was as much a grief to their wives as it was a boon to the innkeeper. No one knew Mistress Chattan's antecedents. Neither were they inclined to ask about them. But the women were suspicious. They would cross the road if they saw her ahead, like the priest and Levite of old, in order to pass by on the other side, little knowing what curses and imprecations she muttered under her breath against them.
Having left the small floral token of goodwill, not fragrant but nonetheless precious in the eyes of him who made girls and flowers and surly old women together, one would assume the recipient and the girl on intimate terms and that the discovery would bring a smile to the good Mistress Chattan's lips.
In fact, only the day before the proprietress of Llanfryniog's single inn—which boasted only three little used rooms but whose pub contained six frequently used tables—had given the girl a rude whack along the side of the head. This had been followed by a string of harsh words that ought not to be heard from a lady's lips.
But Mistress Chattan was no lady. And when she discovered the small nosegay on her door later that evening, a silent oath passed those same lips, more vile than anything spoken against her customers' wives. She knew whence came the gift and was anything but grateful.
On one thing were the wives of Llanfryniog and Mistress Chattan agreed—the young imp and daughter of Codnor Barrie was a menace.
Half the women of the village, like Mistress Chattan on this day, had at one time or another been the recipient of some such insignificant remembrance, usually wildflowers, from the strange benefactress of Llanfryniog. To chastise her or tell her to mind her own business, in the words of Solomon, only succeeded in heaping burning coals upon their own heads. Where one nosegay had been the previous day, a larger one would be found the next.
Most had learned that the best way to keep little Gwyneth a safe distance from their homes was to bite their tongues. Their policy was either to ignore her or treat her with distant civility. Rebuke or anger acted as too ready an incentive to the girl to repay evil with kindness—a sentiment they would all have endorsed in church every Sunday but which, when they found themselves on the receiving end of it, they found disconcerting in the extreme. Where she had come by such an absurd notion, they could only guess.
"There goes the Barrie girl," said one of the village wives to her neighbor over the low stone wall between the gardens at the back of their two cottages.
Both women paused a moment and watched as the unruly head of white sped through the field of green.
"Aye," sighed the other. She added a significant click of her tongue for emphasis. "But where does she come by her strange ways?"
"From her mother, some say."
"Mere gossip. No one on this side ever saw the mother."
"She must have been an ill one, to have given the world such a girl."
"'Tis the auld grannie, if ye be asking me."
"She's no grannie to the lass."
"Who's kin is she, then?"
"The father's, I'm thinking. Though what relation I can't rightly say."
"What of the girl's mother, then?"
"They say she was cursed with the evil seed."
"Where did you hear such a thing, Niamh?"
"From them that know."
"Nobody knows who she was, except that she came from over the water, where the man should never have gone looking for a woman. I hear she had the blood of Irish kings in her veins."
"Now 'tis you who's spinning tales, Eilidh. How would an honest man like Barrie have got such a wife? Whether her blood ran blue or no, I can't say, but 'tis more likely that of knaves."
"Aye, ye may be right. There's rascals and kings alike above us."
"Whatever the color of her blood, the mother passed something to the girl that was not altogether of this world."
"Unless it came from her daddy."
"Codnor Barrie? No, I'm thinking it must have come from the mother or the grannie's side."
"No matter. 'Tis with us now. And none can escape whatever it be till she's gone back to wherever she came from."
The Gray Cliffs of Mochras Head
The course taken by the girl as she disappeared from the two observant busybodies led south of the village. Beyond the grazing cattle behind her, she ascended a gradual slope of uncultivated moorland and soon arrived onto the precipitous promontory known as Mochras Head.
Having completed her errand of grace, she skipped merrily over the terrain of gentle green as if possessing no care in the world. That the plateau across which her steps carried her overlooked a peaceful sea from a height of at least two hundred feet above the craggy coastline caused this Celtic nymph no alarm. She had roamed every inch of these regions since she could walk. The mystery of the sea lay in the depths of her being. Her soul felt its majesty, though she knew not why. These high perches above it were her favorite places in all the world.
Her father taught her that the cliff distinguishing this seawardmost point on the eastern curve of Tremadog Bay was not to be feared, and she trusted her father. Only she must keep three paces from it, he said. From there she might feast upon the blues and greens and grays of the sea to her heart's content and dream of what lay beyond.
Though they knew nothing about her, everyone in the village knew that the girl's mother had come from across these waters. Codnor Barrie loved the sea for his mysterious wife's sake. His daughter shared the mother's blood and was likewise a child of the sea. The father saw in young Gwyneth's countenance daily reminders of the only woman he had ever loved. He knew that the sights, sounds, and smells of the water drew the girl and made her happy. Whatever evil the women of Llanfryniog attributed to the radiance shining out of them, the far-off expression in Gwyneth's pale young eyes kept the melancholy memory of his wife quietly alive in the humble man's heart.
The girl paused and stooped to her knees. She then stretched flat onto her stomach and propped her chin between two small fists. There she lay and gazed out to sea.
It was a warm afternoon in early June. The fragrance of the new spring growth of grass on which she lay wafted gently on the warm sea breezes. What rose in her heart as she lay on the grassy carpet were feelings and sensations no words could explain, no images contain. The world's splendor exhilarated her spirit. For Gwyneth Barrie, that was enough.
How long she lay, she could not have said. When the sun shone and school was over and her papa was at the mine, time did not exist. The sea stretching out like an infinite blanket of green, the moor above it, the hilly woodland rising away eastward toward the peaks of Snowdonia—these all comprised the imaginative playground of her childhood. She was at home on every inch of the landward expanse of them.
The sea beyond, however, remained an intoxicating mystery. She could stare at it for hours. Yet still it withheld its secrets.
She knew that her mother had lived somewhere on the other side of it, and that she had been born in her mother's country. That connection with her unknown origins, and with a mother she had never seen, made the sea a living thing in her soul.
Inland from the girl at a distance of some five or six hundred yards, two riders on horseback trotted slowly down the road toward the village. The gray and the red they rode were well groomed and exquisitely outfitted. The two young people were themselves dressed in riding habits that none of the local peasantry or miners could have afforded for their sons or daughters. Their two hats alone might have cost a month's wages for half the working men in the village.
"Hey look, Florilyn," said the older of the two, a youth who had just turned eighteen. He had seen the girl walking along the promontory as they came onto the plateau. "There's the witch-girl! How about some fun!"
"Like what?" answered his sister, younger by two and a half years.
"To see the little scamp try to outrun a horse!"
"Go chase her yourself, Courtenay," said the girl called Florilyn. "She gives me the shivers. Besides, she's afraid of no animal. She would just stand there and let you charge straight at her."
"Then I'll run her down!" Her brother laughed.
"And have Rhawn's father to answer for it!"
"He wouldn't do anything to me. Father wouldn't let him."
"You might be right. But I have no intention of making the girl angry. She'd probably put a curse on us or something. Suit yourself, but I'm going to see Rhawn." She urged her mount forward down the incline.
A few seconds later her brother followed. Bullying is not a sport enjoyed in solitude. He wasn't quite brave enough to upset the strange child by himself.
Having no idea she was an object of conversation between Lord Snowdon's son and daughter, the girl they had been watching rose and continued on her way. After some distance, she turned toward the great blue expanse below her and suddenly disappeared over the side of Mochras Head.
At this point along the promontory, she was allowed within three paces of the edge. For between the northern and southern extremities of the rocky face, the cliff had worn inland through the eons, creating a slope seaward from the plateau noticeably more gradual in its descent. Down it a well-worn path crisscrossed back and forth until it reached a sandy beach. The inviting narrow strand was approximately forty yards in width at high tide between water's edge and the bluff and stretched away in both directions under the shadow of the lofty headland.
Down this sloping trail the girl now made her way. She bent occasionally to pluck a wildflower from amongst the rocks beside her or kick at a pebble beneath her feet. Three minutes later she ran down the final winding slope and emerged onto the white sandy shore, bright almost to brilliance as it lay between the blue green of the sea and the gray-black of the rocky promontory. Her descent was not unlike that of the wide-winged sea birds—whose antics she glanced up at now and then with hand to forehead. She never tired of watching as they played on the currents and breezes between the cliff and water, occasionally dropping from great heights to the sea, almost paralleling the very trajectory she had herself just taken.
The joys of exploration and discovery of late afternoon were no doubt heightened by the fact that her days were not entirely filled with happiness. School was a painful ordeal for Gwyneth Barrie. She was slow of speech and insecure among the other children who were quick to make her the object of their derision. That she never defended herself and silently accepted the teasing of other children in the village as the natural order of things, invited their jeers all the more.
Her stature, too, tempted cruelty. As it has in all times, the smallest and least aggressive in the animal kingdom are singled out by others of their kind for intensified scorn. Poor Gwyneth had the misfortune to stand a head shorter than any other boy or girl her age in Llanfryniog.
No one but her father knew exactly how old she was. Everyone considered her several years younger than she was. The women who had suckled her, as they grew to fear her, had done their best to forget. The years, however, passed more quickly than they realized. Most assumed her eight or nine. She had actually just turned thirteen.
Pure white hair—lighter than was altogether natural, the old women said with significant expressions—added yet one more visual distinction to make her, in the eyes of young and old alike, more than merely different but peculiar from other children.
Codnor Barrie, stocky, muscular, and a harder working man at the slate mine than most, stood but a few inches over five feet. It was therefore no surprise that his daughter should also be a bantam among her peers. He had suffered similar indignities in his own childhood and youth. It had been assumed that by some quirk of nature his two average- sized parents had produced a dwarf for offspring. But Codnor grew into manhood manifesting no dwarflike attributes other than a simple lack of height.
None in Llanfryniog had ever laid eyes on his wife. Assuming from the daughter that she must have been as tiny as he, they would have been shocked to see her on her wedding day in Ireland, neither short nor blond, towering four inches above beaming young Codnor Barrie.
Notwithstanding his diminutive stature, in all other respects the Welshman, widowed less than two years later, had lived a normal life. This did not stop two or three of the low-minded men of the village from thinking that he, like his daughter, came from an inferior class of humanity. After several pints of stout in Mistress Chattan's pub, such boors often made him the object of their base jokes, exactly as their sons did his daughter.
Courage, however, is measured by other standards. Young Gwyneth possessed more valor than any of her schoolmates among the things of her home—whose roof was the sky and whose furnishings and friendships were provided by nature itself. It required no fortitude to ridicule the defenseless. But let the heavens open and unleash their torrents, let thunder roar and lightning flash, and young Gwyneth Barrie was out the door of the school into the midst of it, rapture in her eyes. All the while her classmates cowered near the black cast-iron stove waiting for the tumult to pass. (Continues...)
Excerpted from From Across the Ancient Waters by Michael Phillips. Copyright © 2012 Michael Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.