A SINGULAR FIGURE

I was presently tempted to think that my landlord was right when he
spoke of the “queer company” which Winifred sometimes kept. For, as I
was rambling about one evening under the white blossoms of the hawthorn,
I suddenly beheld her high up on a mountain pass. This time she was
without her blue cloak, but wore a shawl of vivid scarlet, the corner of
which she had wound about her head. Contrasting with the emerald green
of the grass and the foliage all about her, she seemed more than ever
like a mountain sprite who had suddenly sprung from the ground.

I was about to advance and address her, when I perceived that she was
not alone. Beside her, upon the greensward, stood one of the wildest and
most singular figures it has ever been my fortune to see. He was tall,
and would have been of commanding presence but for a slight stoop in his
shoulders. His hair, worn long, was dishevelled and unkempt, surmounted
by a high-peaked, sugar-loaf hat, the like of which I had never seen
before. His breeches were of corduroy, such as might be worn by any
peasant in the vicinity; only that this particular pair was of a
peculiarly bright green, vivid enough to throw even the grass of the
Emerald Isle into the shade. A waistcoat of red increased the
impression of color. He might have been some gigantic tropical plant,
so gorgeous and so varied were these commingling hues. Over all he wore
a garment, neither coat nor cloak, with wide, hanging sleeves. His
countenance was as singular as his costume; his eyes keen, yet
half-furtive, half-deprecating in their expression; his chin
clean-shaven, showing the hollow, cavernous cheeks with fearful
distinctness. His nose, long and slightly hooked, seemed as if pointing
toward the ground, upon which just then his eyes were fixed.

He was discoursing to the child; and, as I came nearer, I thought he was
using the Irish tongue, or at least many Gaelic words. Once he pointed
upward to the sky with a wild gesture; again he bent down to the earth,
illustrating some weird tale he was telling; whilst expressions of
anger, of cunning, of malice or of joy swept over his face, each being
reflected in the mobile countenance of Winifred, who stood by. She
seemed to follow every word he said with eager interest.

In a pause of the narrative he took off his hat and made a courtly bow
to the child, who held herself erect before him. Resuming his talk, he
pointed more than once in the direction of the castle, so that I fancied
he was dwelling upon the fortunes of the race who had once abode there
and of the chiefs and heroes who had made it famous. Once, however, I
caught the name of Malachy, which might have been that of any peasant in
the neighborhood; and again the word “Lagenian.” Then the old man
relapsed into silence, sighing profoundly; whilst above his head the
dark leaves waved softly and the projecting branches almost touched his
hat.

Winifred finally broke the silence–I heard her clear, childish voice
distinctly:

“Ever since we went to the Waterfalls that day I have been wanting to
talk to you of the Phoul-a-Phooka.”

“But I have told you. Miss Winifred,” the man replied, with some
impatience, “all that I know. The Phooka is a fierce beast, with fire
streaming from his eyes and nostrils, coal-black and gigantic of size.
That is how the legend describes him; and if any unlucky wayfarer meets
him he is compelled to mount and ride. The place which I took you to see
is called after him. You know how lovely it is, how wild, how solitary,
and how well suited to the work I have in hand. I made discoveries
there, Winifred–indeed, I did!”

Here his voice dropped to a whisper, and Winifred put two or three eager
questions to him.

“But you didn’t tell me when we were there,” she said.

“It was better not. We have had listeners,” the man responded.

“I was thinking,” Winifred went on, changing the subject abruptly, “of
that story of the tailor. You know, if the Phoul-a-Phooka had ridden
down that precipice we saw, with him upon his back, why, the tailor
couldn’t have told what happened; for he would have been killed.”

“There’s no saying, there’s no saying!” replied the stranger, absently.
“There are mysteries, my girl; but the legend declares that it was the
garment which the tailor carried that caused the beast to throw him
off.”

“Are legends true?” the girl asked.

“Who knows?” answered the old man, with the same dreamy air. “They hold
a kernel of truth, every one of them.”

“The lady says many things are not true,” Winifred observed.

“The lady! What lady?” demanded the other almost fiercely, with a light
of cunning gleaming from his black eyes.

“The lady from America.”

“Oh, from America did you say?” exclaimed the man, in a hushed and
trembling voice, bending low and looking about him with a terror and
anxiety which were almost grotesque. “Don’t say that word, Miss
Winifred! Don’t now, my beautiful white flower of the mountain!”

The incident reminded me that Granny Meehan at the castle had also
shown, on the occasion of my visit, a certain alarm at the mention of
America; and I wondered what mystery enveloped this singular child and
those who were her guardians. Winifred had perceived the man’s
consternation; looking intently at her singular companion, she asked:

“Why, are you afraid of people from America?”

Standing thus before the old man, she put the question with the
point-blank frankness of childhood.

“No, no, no!” came the answer, hurriedly and with the same tone of
tremulous eagerness,–“at least, child, it is not the kind of fear you
think.”

“Why do you shiver, then, and look like that?”

“Because, O Winifred mavourneen, say it is not for you she’s come!”

“For _me_!” echoed Winifred in astonishment; then she burst into one of
her merriest peals of laughter, seizing a handful of leaves and throwing
them at him. “Why do you think that, you dear, old Niall?”

“I suppose I’m getting old and full of fears,” the man said. “The winter
of life is like the winter of the years. It has its chills and frosts,
its larger share of darkness. But what if one should come and take you
away before we are ready–before the work we have to do is done?”

“No one shall take me away unless I like!” Winifred cried out, throwing
back her small head proudly.

“Wilful I know you are as a mountain torrent,” Niall answered with a
smile; “but there are some who might take you away against your will and
with none to say them nay.”

“I wish you would not talk so!” Winifred said petulantly, tearing to
pieces with her slender, delicate fingers a daisy which she had picked
up from the grass. She threw the stalk away impatiently. “There!” she
cried. “By your foolish talk you have made me destroy one of my own
little daisies; and I always think of them as little children playing in
the long grass, hiding from one another, letting the wind blow them
about, and loving the sun, as all children do.”

The strange man gazed thoughtfully at her as she spoke.

“The same old fancies!” he muttered; “the same turn of mind! But I think
the country people are right: she’s too wise. She has an old head on
young shoulders; too old a head for a child.”

It was Winifred’s turn to stare at Niall.

“Why are you talking to yourself like that?” she asked. “It isn’t
polite.”

But the old man, who had been suddenly seized with a new idea, clasped
his hands as if in desperate anxiety, and bent toward the child, crying:

“You didn’t tell her, daughter of the O’Byrnes–you didn’t tell her? Oh,
say you didn’t! For that would mean ruin–utter, blank ruin.”

Winifred looked at him with a flash of scorn that darkened her blue eyes
into black,–a look of lofty indignation which struck me forcibly.

“So that’s all you know of me, Niall,” she cried, “after the years that
we’ve walked the glen together, and up the passes of the Croghans and
down by the streams! You think I could betray what I know to the first
stranger that crosses my path!”

The man was struck dumb by the passionate cadence in the young voice,
which went on reproaching, upbraiding, as some spirit of the mountain
might have done.

“Oh, you’re a nice companion for me when you could say such a thing–you
that taught me the secret of the stars, and how they shine down, down
just on the spot where that which we seek lies hidden, and after showing
me its gleam in the shining waters!”

“Miss Winifred,” cried the old man, “forgive me!” And he bent one knee
before her. “I was thinking of the ordinary child, with its love of
telling news; and not of the young lady, with the old blood in her veins
and a mind of uncommon acuteness.”




“I don’t want you to kneel to me,” she said gravely, in her
princess-like manner. “You’re old and I’m young, and you should not
kneel. Neither should I have spoken to you as I did. But you must not
doubt me–you must not believe I could betray your secret.”

“Then you forgive me?” said the old man. “And, to show you how I do
trust you, I’m going to give you another present, mavourneen. Oh, the
like of it you never saw!”

He drew from his pocket as he spoke some object carefully wrapped up in
a handkerchief; but as he unwound the wrapping I distinctly saw the
gleam of gold, and, to my astonishment, a very beautiful gold bracelet,
apparently highly wrought. The old man displayed it upon a leaf which
made a charming background. Winifred clapped her hands and fairly danced
with joy, her eyes shining and her face glowing.

“Oh, is that for me, you dear, good Niall?” she exclaimed.

For the third time in my hearing she called the man by his name.

“It is for you, child of my heart, my beautiful little lady!” said the
man, gratified by her enthusiasm.

“It is the most beautiful, far the most beautiful, you have given me
yet.”

“It is a rare gem of art, of faultless carving and of the purest gold,”
said Niall, triumphantly.

“Where did you get it, pray?” asked the child.

The answer I did not hear, for the man stooped low and spoke in a
whisper. I feared that, being discovered, I should find myself in an
awkward predicament; so I thought only of beating a hasty retreat. In so
doing I stumbled and fell. Fortunately, it was upon soft moss–the
kindly breast of Mother Nature.

Winifred’s keen eyes saw what had occurred, and she ran instantly to my
assistance. I assured her that I was not hurt, and, on rising, looked
about for her strange companion. He had disappeared as completely as if
the grassy sward had opened and swallowed him. The child did not say a
word about his having been there; and, for some unexplained reason, I
felt that I could not ask any questions. There was about her more than
ever on this occasion that air of pride and reserve which was sometimes
so noticeable.

As soon, however, as she saw that I was unhurt she left me in a rather
more unceremonious fashion than usual. She feared, perhaps, that I might
refer to her conversation with the man whom she had called Niall. I
watched her walking away more thoughtful than usual, her step scarcely
touching the grass, so light was she; and I marvelled at her singular
destiny.

When I reached the inn I took the landlord into my confidence, to the
extent of telling him that I had seen Winifred in company with a
peculiar-looking man, and that he had seemed disturbed when she spoke of
the lady from America. As I had overheard a chance conversation, I felt
bound, of course, to say nothing of the bracelet, or of certain other
allusions in the old man’s discourse which had puzzled me.

“Some do be sayin’ that he has the Evil Eye,” remarked the landlord,
referring to Niall; “and, though meself doesn’t hold much with them ould
notions, there may be somethin’ in what they say, after all. For the
colleen bringin’ you into the discoorse mebbe turned his ill-will upon
you and caused, p’raps, the fall you had.”

I smiled at this, assuring him that the fall had a very natural cause,
my foot having caught in the root of a tree. But I could see that he was
still unconvinced and regarded Niall as a more dangerous individual than
ever. And, finding it useless to argue, I retired to my room to think
over the events of the morning.

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