AT THE CASTLE

It was a lovely May morning when the landlord of the inn came to tell me
that Wayward Winifred was waiting.

“Why do they call her by that name?” I asked of him.

“Oh, then, sure, ma’am, it’s just because of her whimsical ways! You
might as well try to stick a pin through the down of a thistle or take a
feather from a swallow on the wing, as to know what the crathur will be
doin’ next.” He looked all round as if he feared that the walls might
have ears; and, seeming in a more communicative mood than before, he
continued his narrative: “There’s them that says,” he whispered, coming
close to me, “that all’s not right with her; and it’s as well you should
know it before you go off to the castle with her. She knows too much for
one of her years, and she’s that wild and whimsical, there’s no stoppin’
her whichever way she goes. And she keeps queer company sometimes.”

“But who were her parents?”

“Well, you asked me that before, ma’am, but it’s a long story. Some will
have it that she’s not of mortal stock at all. But, to be sure, that’s
the old people, with their queer consates,” he added, somewhat
shamefacedly.

“Who takes care of her?”

“Who? Well, as for that, she mostly takes care of herself,” replied the
landlord, with a gesture expressive of the hopelessness of the
situation.

“But she can’t live alone. She has, I believe, a grandmother.”

The landlord gave me a queer look.

“Oh, she lives with Granny Meehan, as you’ll see when you go there! But
she’s gettin’ restive below. I hear her feet patterin’ round, and it’s
hard to tell what she might be at, so I’d better be goin’ down.”

“Say I’m just coming!” I called after the man; and, descending
presently, looked out of doors, and saw, sitting in the branches of a
lilac tree, the same figure that I had beheld upon the bough which
stretched over the ravine. The landlord, honest man, was addressing the
girl, with some anxiety, from the window below.

“Come down here, now–that’s a good child!–or you’ll be gettin’ a fall,
so you will; and a nasty cut on your head for the doctor to sew up–and
breakin’ my fence into the bargain.”

The child laughed, that selfsame musical laugh which rang out upon the
air like the sound of bells, and she shook the tree in her mirth, and
sent a shower of the fragrant lilac blossoms down upon my head.

“I ask you pardon!” she said, with a shade of gravity crossing her face.
“I didn’t mean to send any down upon your bonnet, for a beautiful bonnet
it is.”

She eyed as she spoke the article of headgear which I had purchased at a
shop on Fifth Avenue, New York. I was surprised that she should have
perceived any beauty in the bonnet, it being quiet in shape and neutral
in tint, to suit the exigencies of travel.

When she had descended to the ground, she picked up a cloak from under
the tree and wrapped herself in it. It was one of those peasant’s cloaks
of blue cloth, enveloping the figure from head to foot, which, as
articles of dress, are fast disappearing from Ireland; but which were
both becoming and picturesque. Winifred did not, however, put up the
hood; but showed her delicately formed head, with its rich, dark hair,
cut short, and curling in ringlets about her forehead and neck, and
forming a fascinating tangle upon the top.

“Shall we go?” I asked Winifred.

“Yes,” she answered; “if you are ready.”

And so we went. Our course, at first, lay through the lanes strewn with
wild flowers, primroses and early violets, with the hedgerows white with
bloom. The balmy air of May, fresher and purer in Ireland, it seems,
than elsewhere, gently stirred the tender green of the foliage. The lark
and the thrush sang together a morning hymn. Soon, however, the scenery
became wilder and wilder; rocky passes frowned upon us, and we looked
down into ravines that might well make the unwary tremble.

Up the steep path I followed where the girl led with foot as sure as a
mountain goat. She spoke from time to time in her soft, liquid accent.
Perhaps it was part of her waywardness to show herself more shy and
reserved than I had yet seen her, answering my questions in
monosyllables, and briefly bidding me to beware of dangerous places. At
last, in a winding of the road, we came upon one of those feudal keeps
which marked the military character of bygone chiefs. Its walls were
still intact, and a great donjon reared its head to the sky, in defiance
of time.

We could not enter by the iron gates, still vainly guarding the ruin;
for the path beyond them was choked with weeds and overgrown with grass.
The child led me instead through a narrow pathway, and a low door in the
thickest part of the wall, which had survived all attacks of the
elements, and was, perhaps, of a later erection. Walls and roof were
alike uninjured; but I had a strange feeling of passing from daylight
into chill darkness, when my guide silently ushered me into a
stone-paved passage, where all was still and gloomy.

It was a relief, at last, to reach a large square room, appointed
somewhat in the manner of a farm kitchen. A peat fire burned upon the
hearth, a kettle sang upon the hob, a wooden settle stood close by, and
strings of herrings hung from the beams of the ceiling, flanked by a
flitch or two of bacon. Homely, comfortable objects they were, making me
forget my plunge into the past, and convincing me that here was life and
reality and domestic comfort. By the fire sat an old woman, erect and
motionless; and though her face was turned toward us, she gave no sign
of perceiving me, nor did she respond to my salute.

She wore a plain gown of dark gray, of the roughest material, probably
homespun, but scrupulously neat. Across her breast was pinned a
handkerchief of snowy white; and a large frilled cap shaded a face,
somewhat emaciated, with features clear-cut, and white hair showing but
slightly under the frills. Her eyes were of a dull gray, very wide open
and seemed to fix themselves upon me with a curious expression, which
made me strangely uncomfortable. I began to ask myself: “Who are these
people, and why has this strange child brought me here?”

My fears were set at rest when the old woman opened her lips, saying:

“Miss Winifred, alanna! And is that yourself?”

There was something so human and tender in the sound of the voice that I
felt at once drawn to that aged figure, which resembled more a statue
than a thing of life.

“Yes, Granny; and I’ve brought some one with me,” the girl said.

A look of something like alarm crossed the old woman’s face.

“A stranger?” she said uneasily.

“Yes, dear granny; ’tis a lady from America.”

This time the old woman started perceptibly, and her gaze seemed to fix
itself on my face, while there was a straightening of her whole figure
into rigid attention.

“I have been staying in the neighborhood,” I put in; “and chancing to
meet your granddaughter–”

“She is no granddaughter of mine!” interrupted the old woman, hastily
and, as it seemed, almost angrily. “No, Miss Winifred is not.”

“Forgive me, please! I did not know,” I stammered. “I thought she
addressed you as granny.”

“Oh, that’s just her coaxing way! And, besides, it’s a custom
hereabouts. Ould women like myself are all grannies.”

Every trace of annoyance or of fear had passed from the serene old face,
and the habitual courtesy of the Irish peasant became at once
conspicuous.

“Have you a chair for the lady, Miss Winifred, asthore? Mebbe it’s a
glass of new milk she’d be takin’ after her walk.”

I accepted this refreshment, partly to establish myself upon a friendly
footing with my new acquaintances, and partly because I was really glad
of the restorative after a long walk. The milk was brought me by a
bare-legged and ruddy-cheeked girl of about Winifred’s own age, who did
much of the rough work about the place; though, as I afterward learned,
Winifred, in some of her moods, would insist on milking the cow, and
driving it home from pasture; or would go forth to gather the peat for
the fire, in spite of all remonstrance.

There were things that puzzled me about this unusual abode–the
scrupulous respect with which the old woman treated the girl, the
appearance of comfort and plenty about this strange retreat in the heart
of a once warlike citadel, where the chiefs of old had displayed their
banners and manned the walls with clansmen and gallow-glasses. Then the
singular expression of the old woman’s countenance, and the manner in
which she gazed before her, apparently at vacancy, once I had stepped
out of her range of vision. Only one of these mysteries was I destined
to solve upon the occasion of this first visit.

While I sipped my milk and nibbled at the bit of fresh oaten bread which
accompanied it, I conversed with the old woman; Winifred standing mute,
in the shadow of the deep window, as if lost in thought.

“America’s very far off entirely,” said granny, dreamily–“acrost the
ocean; and they tell me it’s a very fine country, with riches and plenty
for all.”

“It is a fine country,” I said warmly; “but there are many there who
have neither riches nor plenty and who live and die in misery.”

“Do you tell me so?” exclaimed the old woman. “Look at that now! And the
boys and girls thinkin’ it long till they get out there, and have money
in their pockets and fine clothes on their backs.”

“Well, many of them do succeed,” I remarked; “only they have to work
hard for it. There’s no royal road to success anywhere.”

“True for you, ma’am,–true for you!” sighed the old woman. “‘Tis the
law, and ’twas a wise God that ordained it.”

“I know one person that got rich without working,” said Winifred,
speaking suddenly and with a kind of imperiousness.

I looked at her in surprise, and the granny said, in a soothing tone:

“Ah, then, asthore, don’t be bringin’ in names! It’s safer not.”

Winifred, for answer, turned silently to the window, gazing out again,
and I was left to conjecture that here was another mystery. What
experience of life could this child have had? And who in that
neighborhood could have grown rich, suddenly or otherwise? When I rose
to go I expressed my desire to come again.

“Mebbe you’d have a curiosity to see more of the ould place,” said the
woman.

“But the castle is not a show place,” cried Winifred, imperiously. “It’s
private property.”

“God help your wit!” I heard the old woman mutter; but aloud she said
with conciliation, almost deference:

“Sure you know as well as I do, Miss Winifred dear, that every castle in
the country, even where the grand folks do be livin’, is thrown open
every now and again to travellers.”

“This castle is not open to any one,” said Winifred, drawing her slight
figure to its height and addressing me; “but if you, being from America,
would like to see it, I would show it to you.”




I told her that I should very much like to see it, and would certainly
come again for the purpose.

“There’s some stories about the ould place that mebbe you’d like to
hear, ma’am,” said Granny Meehan, anxious to make amends for any
abruptness on the part of her charge.

I told her that the stories would be an additional attraction; and as I
was about leaving the room, I remarked:

“It’s a glorious day. You should go out, Mrs. Meehan, if only to see
the sun shining on the mountains.”

Winifred sprang forward, her face crimson.

“For shame! for shame!” she cried.

I turned back to the old woman in perplexity. The ghost of a smile was
on her face, as she declared:

“I shall never see the bright sun more in this world,–I shall never see
it more. But I like to know that it is shining.”

Here, then, was the solution of one mystery; and as I looked at that
fine and placid countenance I wondered at my own stupidity; for though
the eyes were wide open, their expression told the tale very plainly.

“I am so sorry,” I said; “I did not know. Can you ever forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive nor to be sorry for,” she replied, with a
smile breaking over her face like sunshine. “Glory be to God for all His
mercies! I’ve been sittin’ here in the dark for ten years; but all the
time, thanks be to His holy name, as happy as a lark.”

I turned away, with admiration mingled with compassion.

“And,” added the old woman, “I know the purty sight you’re spakin’ of,
ma’am dear. I seem to see, as often I saw it, the sun playin’ about the
hills in little streams of gold, and the tree-tops brightenin’ in its
glow. Oh, I know the hills of Wicklow since I was a wee dawshy! And
there isn’t a tree nor a blade of grass nor a mountain flower that
Granny Meehan doesn’t remember from old days that are far off now.”

I saw that Winifred’s sensitive face was working with emotion, while her
eyes filled with tears. I also saw that she had hardly forgiven me yet
for my blunder. I suggested gently that we had better go, and the girl
made no objection. So we pursued our homeward way, silently for the most
part. Suddenly, I exclaimed:

“Oh, what a beautiful nature has that old woman!”

“Do you mean granny?” Winifred asked quickly. “Oh, she’s as beautiful
as–the Dargle!”

And even while we talked burst upon us that view, which, once seen, can
never be forgotten. Those hills arising on either side, clothed in a
superb, living green; and the loveliest of glens below, with the
rippling beauty of its stream fair as the poet’s river of the earthly
paradise; and Powerscourt’s splendid demesne to the eastward, and all
the mountains about, arising grandly, enlivened with that unsurpassed
sunshine.

“Ye hills, give praise to God!” I murmured involuntarily; and paused,
feeling Winifred’s dark eyes upon me, with inquiry in their glance.

“It is a verse from the hymn of thanksgiving sung often in church,” I
said. “Did you ever hear it?”

Winifred shook her head.

“They don’t sing much in the chapel down below,” she said, “except
simple little hymns. It isn’t like the grand days when the castle was
full of people and the abbey church was close by.”

Then she paused, as if she did not care to say more; and as we were now
within sight of the hill she suddenly left me, waving her hand in
farewell, and swinging herself by the tree-bridge across the
mountain-stream.

“Good-by!” she called back to me. “And don’t forget next time that
granny is blind.”

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