A FIRST MEETING

Perhaps some reader may know the Glen of the Dargle. No boys or girls
may know it, but perchance their grandsires may tell them of a mountain
stream which threads its way through rugged hills till it falls over a
precipice and winds onward through a glen of unspeakable loveliness.
They may remember the ravine shut in on either side by hills, covered
with gigantic trees, some of which meet across it, forming a natural
bridge.

Well, it was upon that bridge that I saw–at first with deep amazement,
then with fear and trembling–the slender, graceful figure, the almost
eerie loveliness of Wayward Winifred. How she had reached her dangerous
position was clear enough; for her feet were like the mountain goat, and
her figure wonderfully lithe and active. I stood and gazed at her,
afraid to speak lest she should fall from the dizzy height. She looked
back at me with clear brown eyes, and spoke in a voice that held just a
hint of the Dublin accent to give it sweetness.

“Are you the lady from America?”

I answered that I was, and a long pause ensued. The child was evidently
studying me, and I in my turn put a question:

“How on earth, child, did you get up there? And don’t you know that any
moment you might come tumbling down into the water below?”

“The water wouldn’t harm me if I did,” Winifred replied, looking down
into the clear depths; “and it knows me well. I come here every day,
unless there be a storm.”

“Is your mother aware of so dangerous a proceeding?” I asked with some
sternness.

A strange look passed over the girl’s face, and she answered with a
little laugh, half merry, half wistful:

“Ah! then, don’t you know? I’m the orphan from the castle.”

“From the castle?” I repeated. I began to think that this creature,
after all, was a spirit, such as I had been told lived in the glens and
streams of fairy-haunted Ireland.

“Yes,” said she, “I am from the castle.”

“From Powerscourt?” I suggested; supposing, of course, that she meant
the great mansion which all visitors to the Dargle felt bound to see.

“From Powerscourt!” cried she, with contempt in her voice. “Oh, it’s
easy to see you are from America! Why, the castle I live in was built
hundreds of years before there was any Powerscourt at all.”

I was again struck dumb by this assurance. What castle could she mean? I
knew of none in the neighborhood, and yet I had been studying the latest
guidebook with the closest attention.

“If you come with me some day,” she said, “I will show you _my_ castle,
and granny will be very glad to see you.”

She spoke with a grand air, as though she were, indeed, a young princess
inviting me to visit her ancestral home.

“Where is the castle?” I inquired.

“Where is the castle?” she repeated, as if in bewilderment. “Well, it
is up, up in the hills. Perhaps you haven’t any hills in America?”

I assured her that we had.

“Well,” she declared, in the same lofty way, “if you know how to climb
hills, and don’t mind if the road is steep, I’ll take you there some
time.”

“To-morrow?” I suggested.

“No; to-morrow I’m going away off to the Phoul-a-Phooka.”

“Where is that?”

“Miles away from here.”

“Are you going alone?”

“I’m going with some one,” she answered, with her clear, musical laugh;
“but I won’t tell you who.”

“I have not asked,” I said, provoked a little by her coolness. “I assure
you, dear child, I have no wish to force your confidence.”

“It’s some one we don’t talk much about,” she said, nodding her head
sagaciously. “Granny says that there are people whom it’s best not to
meddle with.”

“And yet you are going to this place with the outlandish name in such
company?” I said, almost involuntarily.

She drew herself up.

“Oh, that is very different!” she said. “When I am with this person I am
in very good company; and who so well as he can tell me of the
Phoul-a-Phooka and all those other things I want to hear?”

“You are a strange child,” I remarked.

She looked at me, surprised and half offended.

“How am I strange?” she demanded.

“I mean different from others.”

An expression almost of sadness crossed her face.

“I am alone, you see,” she said; “and I live up at the castle.”

The explanation was a pathetic one, and I observed the girl with greater
interest than ever.

“I should like to be friends with you,” I declared.

“I do not often make friends of strangers,” she said, with some return
of her former lofty manner–“but, yes, I think I like you.”

“Very well; there shall be a compact between us to like each other,” I
replied. “And the first fruits of our agreement shall be to arrange what
day I may go with you to the castle and see your–relative.”

Something in my speech amused her, and she laughed merrily.

“Poor old granny!” she said. “You will love her at first sight.”

“The gift is evidently in the family,” I answered, “of making people
love them at first sight.”

“In the family?” she repeated again, with that look of drollery upon her
face which had almost upset my own gravity. “Never mind: you shall come
and see for yourself, two days from now, when I get home from
Phoul-a-Phooka.”

She slipped down as she spoke from her perilous perch and landed safely
on the opposite shore, becoming at once embowered in greenness, a very
goddess of the woods. She made a graceful gesture of farewell and turned
away, light as a young fawn.

I stood spellbound, watching the path by which she had disappeared.
Curiosity was aroused within me, and I felt an uncommon attraction for
this being who seemed of a different mould from those of common clay. I
fell to dreaming of her as I walked home through those exquisite scenes
of rare and mournful loveliness. The dark story of Erin seemed told in
her hills and streams. I was also anxious to discover what was the
Phoul-a-Phooka, and who might be the mysterious companion of her journey
to that unknown region.

I seemed to tread, indeed, on enchanted ground; and I could hardly
believe that I was the same being who a month before had been walking
down Broadway, stopping to admire the wonderful products of the
century’s genius in Tiffany’s windows, idly surveying the crowds of
passers-by, and jostling my way past the Fifth Avenue Hotel. However, I
had to keep all my speculations to myself and wait for that visit to the
castle, to which I began to look forward with the greatest eagerness.
Could the castle itself be a mere myth, the creation of a sensitive
imagination? On that point, at least, I determined to satisfy my
curiosity as soon as an opportunity occurred.

I found the landlord of the inn alone that evening, his labors done for
the day, pipe in mouth, smoking on a bench beside the door. He was a
somewhat taciturn man, less loquacious than most of his race and
station, and the subject, in some way, did not seem to commend itself to
him.

“The castle? To be sure, there’s a castle up there beyant. A mighty fine
ould place in former times.”

“But to whom does it belong now?”

He looked uneasy.

“Who is the owner? Why, that would be hard to tell, though I suppose
it’s Miss Winifred herself.”

“Is she, then, of noble birth?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s not easy to say!” he replied, evasively. “Some say she is, and
more say she isn’t.”

Here was a mystery with a vengeance.

“Perhaps you can tell me, at least, what is the Phoul-a-Phooka?”

The landlord gave me a half-startled look.

“The blessin’ of God be about us!” he ejaculated, piously. “I wonder
now, ma’am dear, why you would care to be inquirin’ into things of the
sort.”

“But what sort of thing is it?” I persisted. “Something, I am sure,
which we do not have in America, where we claim to have so much. Our
steam-whistles and the roar of our factories have driven from us what
Ireland has kept–her legends and her poetry.”

The man did not seem to relish this style of conversation, or, perhaps,
to understand it; for he answered somewhat shortly:

“The Phoul-a-Phooka is a wild horse, the devil himself takin’ that
shape; and woe to any one whom he gets upon his back!”

“Oh, it can’t be to see a wild horse that this child is going!” I
remonstrated.

“No, ma’am; ’tis to a wild, solitary spot, with a power of waterfalls in
it,” replied the landlord. “But it gets its name from the beast I’m
tellin’ you of.”

“Oh! is that it?” I replied.

“Yes ma’am; ’twas there that the horse leaped a precipice with the
tailor that had about him the priest’s soutane he was after makin’. The
horse felt it like a stone’s weight on his back, and down he went with
the tailor.”

The man told the story with some hesitation, as if not seeming to
believe in it, and yet reluctant to express disbelief openly.

“It’s a beautiful spot, though, ma’am; that’s what it is. And mebbe
you’d be goin’ to see it yourself some of these days.”




“Very likely I shall,” I assented; “but first I want to see the old
castle and the woman and child who live there.”

“It’s a good bit of a walk,” said the landlord; “but the weather is
fine, so I suppose you won’t mind that.”

“No, I won’t mind it,” I declared–“not in the least, and Winifred is
coming for me in a day or two.”

“And I hope she won’t be a Will-o’-the-wisp to you, ma’am, and leave you
in some bog or another.”

He spoke with considerable asperity, and but that he was just then
called away I should have questioned him further; for I judged from his
manner that he had suffered from some of the pranks of my new
acquaintance. I smiled to myself as I wondered if the girl had been
leading him a dance over mountain and moor, or what was the nature of
the particular trick she had played upon the stony-visaged landlord.

Share