A SECOND VISIT TO THE CASTLE

It was not so very long after this occurrence that, led on by the beauty
of a moonlight night, I wandered somewhat farther than usual from the
inn. The soft radiance of the full moon was streaming down over that
exquisite landscape. I stood and gazed at a tiny stream which lay
sparkling and shimmering with magical brilliancy; and as I did so I saw,
coming through the dark masses of foliage on a mountain path, the same
figure which I had before seen in company with Winifred. The man’s
outline seemed larger and more gaunt than before. I presume this was due
to the uncertain, flickering light of the moon through the trees.

An impulse urged me to conceal myself. I slipped into the shadow and
watched Niall approach, with a curiosity which was full of awe. His head
was up in the air, so that he resembled those magicians of old who read
the stars and pretended to discover in them the secrets of the future.
It was evident that he was making some calculation; for he stopped from
time to time, counting rapidly on his fingers.

He finally advanced close to the edge of the stream and knelt down. He
peered into the clear depths so keenly that it seemed as if he were
counting the pebbles on the bottom. All the time he muttered to himself,
but quite unintelligibly, so that I caught not a word. At one point,
where the rivulet was shallow, he felt with both hands very carefully
for some time, taking up and throwing down again handfuls of clay or
pebbles.

Suddenly he threw up his arms with a strange, triumphant exultation;
and, rushing in among the trees, he brought out something which seemed
like a crock. He placed it beside the stream; and then, as I still
watched and waited, his jubilation gave place to caution. He began to
look all about him, stooping and shading his eyes with his hand so that
he might better penetrate the gloom, while he turned his head in every
direction. I wondered what he would do if he should discover me. The
idea was, to say the least, uncomfortable at such a time and in such a
place. All around darkness save for the light of the moon; everywhere
the intense stillness and solitude of a rustic neighborhood, in which
all the world sleeps save those “who steal a few hours from the night.”
I was alone with this singular being, whose wild, grotesque appearance
was enough to frighten any one; and once I thought I saw his burning
eyes fixed upon me in my hiding-place.

I scarce dared to breathe, fearing that every moment he would pounce
upon me and drag me forth. But it was soon evident that he did not see
me. His face lost its watchful look, and he advanced once more toward
the moon-whitened stream where he had left his crock. He cast a hasty
glance upward and I heard _gealach_–the Gaelic word for the moon–pass
his lips, coupled with that of Winifred; and then he began to take up
what seemed like mud from the bed of the stream, filling the crock
rapidly.

When this was full, he seized the vessel and disappeared at a fearful
rate, as it seemed to me, up the steep path by which he had previously
descended. I was conscious of a great relief when I saw him vanish in a
turn of the road; for there had been something uncanny even in the huge
shadow which he cast behind him, and which brought out the weirdness of
his figure and of his garments, as well as of his wonderful,
sugar-loafed hat. I was afraid to come out from my hiding-place for some
time, lest he might be looking down upon me from some dark place above.

I went home, with a firm determination to discover, if possible, who was
this singular person, what were his pursuits, and whence he had come. I
felt that on Winifred’s account, at least, I should like to know more of
her ill-chosen companion. I was certain that the landlord, though a
natural gossip once his tongue was unloosed, would relapse into
taciturnity if I strove to make him throw light upon this mysterious
subject. My only hope lay in Granny Meehan. She seemed a reasonable and
conscientious woman, certainly devoted to the girl. Therefore I would
appeal to her to discover if Niall were worthy of her confidence, if his
dreamy and unsettled condition of mind made him a suitable companion for
Winifred, and if such companionship would not disgust her with the
realities of life, prevent her from acquiring a solid education and the
training which befitted the station to which I believed her to belong.

I had become deeply interested in the girl, though I had not as yet
formed the project, which later developed itself, of taking her with me
to America and putting her in one of the celebrated convent schools
there. Her condition even then seemed to me a sad and perilous one: her
only guardian apparently a blind woman, who, despite her devoted
affection, had neither the power nor, perhaps, the will to thwart
Winifred in anything. The girl’s nature seemed, on the other hand, so
rich in promise, so full of an inherent nobility, purity, and poetry,
that I said to myself, sighing:

“No other land under the sun could produce such a daughter–one who in
such surroundings gleams as a pearl amongst dark waters.”

I paid my second visit to the castle, therefore, on the very day after
my moonlight glimpse of the mysterious Niall. It was a bright morning,
flower-scented and balmy, with that peculiar balminess, that
never-to-be-forgotten fragrance of the Irish atmosphere in the May time
of the year. I stood still to listen to a wild thrush above me as I
neared the castle, and the thrilling sweetness of its notes filled me
with something of its own glee. Winifred was in the old courtyard
feeding some chickens, gray and speckled and white, with crumbs of oaten
bread and a bowlful of grain. She was laughing gaily at their antics and
talking to the fowls by name:

“No, Aileen Mor! You’re too greedy: you’re swallowing everything. Gray
Mary, you haven’t got anything. Here’s a bit for you. No, no, bantam
Mike, you can’t have any more; let the hens eat something!”

The large speckled fowl that Winifred had first addressed stalked
majestically to and fro, snatching from its weaker brethren every
available morsel; while the little ones ran in and out, struggling and
fighting in the most unseemly manner over the food Winifred let fall.

The child, on seeing me, nodded gaily.

“See,” she said, “how they fight for their food! They’re worse even than
children!” Then she added in her pretty, inquiring way, with the soft
modulation peculiar to the district: “I suppose, now, there are a great
many fowls in America?”

“Oh, yes!” I replied–“fowls of every sort. I think you will have to
come to America some time and see for yourself.”

A flush passed over her face, making it rosy red; then she said, with
the curiously imperious manner which I had so often before noticed:

“I _am_ going there some time: I _have_ to go.”

She turned once more to the chickens, silently this time; and her
manner, as plainly as possible, forbade me to question her. No child had
ever impressed me in this way before. It was not that she was
unchildlike nor what might be called old-fashioned; but she had that
about her which was partly the effect, no doubt, of the peculiar
deference with which she was treated by the blind woman and by Niall the
wanderer.

“I suppose I may see Granny?” I remarked; and she answered:

“Oh, yes! She will be very glad. She is always in there near the
hearth.”

I was glad that Winifred showed no disposition at the moment to abandon
her occupation of feeding the fowls; for I wanted to have at least a few
words with good Mrs. Meehan on the subject of Winifred’s association
with the grotesque personage whom local tradition seemed to invest with
unusual if not unholy powers. I passed through the stone passage, and,
entering the square room, found the blind woman, as before, in
statuesque attitude near the hearth, where on this occasion no fire was
burning, its place being filled by an enormous bunch of clover, placed
there by Winifred. The blind woman recognized me the moment I spoke.

“You’re heartily welcome, ma’am!” said she, smiling; and we went on to
exchange a few commonplaces about the weather and so forth.

It was a still day without, and we heard every once in a while the voice
of Winifred calling out her commands to the fowls; and presently she was
in conversation with some one whom Mrs. Meehan explained to be Moira,
their little maid-of-all-work.




“Sure, then, Miss Winifred, we might go the night with Barney to bring
home some of the sods of peat. Barney will be havin’ the cart out, an’
we may as well have the drive,” Moira said.

“Yes, I think I will go,” said Winifred, “after the May prayers at the
chapel. I’m going, when tea’s over, to pick a great posy for the Blessed
Virgin’s altar. But it will be moonlight and we can go after.”

“To be sure, we can, miss,” assented Moira; adding the information that
“Barney got a power of fine fish the day, an’ he sold it all at
Powerscourt, barrin’ one big trout that’s for yourself, Miss Winifred.
An’ the gentry over there gave him two shillin’s, but he’s puttin’ them
by to take him to Ameriky.”

“Every one has a craze for America,” said Winifred’s clear voice. “Even
_I_ am going there some day.”

“Musha, then, an’ I hope you’ll take me with you!” cried Moira,
coaxingly; “for what would I be doin’ at all, at all, without yourself?”

“We’ll see when the time comes,” declared Winifred. “I might take
you–that depends. But you’d better not say anything about it; for
perhaps if people got talking we mightn’t go at all.”

“I’ll be as secret as–as the priest himself in the confessional!”
promised Moira. “An’ that’s secret enough. But I can’t help wonderin’
what it would be like out there?”

“It’s a splendid place they say, with mountains and rivers,” began
Winifred.

“Sure an’ we have enough of them ourselves, with no disrespect to them
that tould you,” said Moira.

“In America they are different,” said Winifred, grandly. “And, then,
there are great forests–”

Moira scratched her head dubiously.

“With deer and Indians in them.”

“I’m afeard of Indians,” commented Moira promptly. “I read a terrible
story about them once in a book that Father Owen gave me.”

“Oh, well, we shan’t be very near them if we go!” explained Winifred.
“And it would be very fine to see them at a distance.”

“I’d rather not see them at all, if it’s the same to you, miss,”
declared the determined Moira.

“The deer, then, and the buffaloes and all the wild animals, and grand
cities, with shops full of toys and dresses and beautiful things.”

“Oh, it’s the cities I’d like to be seein’, with shops!” cried Moira.
“We’ll keep away from the hills and streams, Miss Winifred asthore,
havin’ them galore in our own country. An’ we’ll keep away from the
forests, for fear it’s the wild Indians we’d be comin’ across.”

Her tone was coaxing, with that wheedling note in it peculiar to her
race.

“Oh, it’s to the cities I must go!” said Winifred. “But I don’t know
what a city is like, Moira. I can’t make a picture of it to my eye. It
is a big place, crowded with people, all hurrying by in a stream; and
the shops–”

“I seen a shop once!” exclaimed Moira. “There was things in the window.
It was a thread-an’-needle shop, I think.”

“There are all kinds in big cities,” said Winifred; “and I can’t make
pictures of them either. But once I remember–I just seem to remember–a
strange place. Perhaps it was the street of a city, with shining windows
on either side. A gentleman had me by the hand; and presently he put me
before him on a horse and we galloped away, and I never saw those things
again.”

I heard these artless confidences of the young girl in the pauses of my
own discourse with the blind woman, who heard them, too, and sometimes
interrupted our talk with: “D’ye hear that now, ma’am?” or, “The Lord
love her, poor innocent!”

But though I smiled and paused for an instant at such moments, I did not
allow myself to be turned away from the main object of my visit, and at
last I burst boldly into the subject which was occupying my mind.

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