THE SCHOOLMASTER

When I mentioned the strange apparition which I had seen with Winifred
on one of those mountain passes overlooking the Glen of the Dargle, I
saw that Granny Meehan was troubled and that she strove to avoid the
subject.

“Winifred seems very intelligent,” I remarked.

“That she does,” the old woman assented cordially. “Times there be when
I’m afeard she knows too much.”

“Too much?” I inquired.

Granny Meehan nodded as she added:

“Some says that it serves me right for lettin’ her go to school so long
to the mad schoolmaster.”

Her voice sank almost to a whisper as she said the last words.

“The mad schoolmaster!” I repeated, feeling that here was no doubt the
clue for which I had been so long seeking.

“Whist, ma’am dear! Don’t speak that name so loud,–don’t, for the love
of God!” she interposed eagerly.

“Why, Mrs. Meehan,” I said warmly, “you are too sensible and too
religious a woman to believe all the nonsense that is talked
hereabouts.”

The old woman shook her head and hesitated a moment.

“I’m not sayin’ that I believe this, that or the other thing,” she
declared, almost doggedly; “but at the end of life, ma’am dear, we get
to know that there are people and things it’s best not to meddle with.”

“Was that the mad schoolmaster I saw with Winifred?” I asked–lowering
my voice, however, in deference to the caution which I felt angrily
disposed to call superstition.

“Sure I suppose ’twas himself and no other,” declared Mrs. Meehan, with
a half sigh. “Miss Winifred has a real heart-love for him; and sometimes
it makes me uneasy, because people say he’s too knowledgeable to have
come honestly by his wisdom. There’s no tellin’. But be that as it may,
there’s no other evil told of the man. He’s been like a father to the
poor little one and given her all the schoolin’ she’s had.”

“He _is_ a schoolmaster, then?” I asked.

“To be sure, ma’am, and a mighty fine one entirely; so that for many a
year them that wanted their childer to have more book-learnin’ than they
have themselves, as folks do nowadays, sent their gossoons to him, and
the girls as well. And a kind and good master he was, I’m told: never a
cross word passin’ his lips. And a fine scholar, with a power of
learnin’ in his head.”

“Does he still keep the school?” I inquired further.

“He doesn’t, ma’am, more’s the pity. But ’twas this way. One began to be
afeard of him, sayin’ that he wasn’t lucky; and another began to be
afeard. The word flew from mouth to mouth, till but few enough remained.
Then of a sudden he up and told the people that he wasn’t goin’ to teach
no more in the hills of Wicklow; and he closed up his school and off
with him for a month or so. He came back again, do you mind? But he
never would have no pupils except Miss Winifred. And when the people
seen that they tried to get him to take back the school. But it was all
of no use: he’s that set agin it that Father Owen himself could do
nothin’ with him.”

“But how does he support himself?”

Granny Meehan turned her head this way and that, listening, to be sure
that no one was about; then she leaned toward me, seeming to know by
instinct where I sat, and began impressively:

“Oh, it’s a queer kind of life he’s led since then! He still has his
cabin up in the Croghans–you may see it any day. Sometimes he’s there
and sometimes he isn’t; but many a tale does be told about his doin’s up
yonder. There was one that watched him by night, and what do you think
he seen?”

I could not imagine, and said so.

“He saw him puttin’ stones into an iron pot, like this very one here
that hangs on the hob for the potatoes.”

I glanced at the utensil mentioned, while she went on with her tale.

“Well, with that the gossoon that was spyin’ on him took to his heels
and never stopped till he was safe at home; and, of course, the whole
countryside knew of it by the mornin’. And, then, the schoolmaster goes
wanderin’ round in the night when honest folks are in their beds; and
kneelin’ down, they tell me, by the water side, as if he was prayin’ to
the moon and stars or to the fishes. Now I ask you if that’s fit conduct
for a Christian man?”

“He may have his own reasons for all that,” I suggested. “Men of
learning and science do many strange things.”

“I’m afeard it’s for no good he’s actin’ so,” said Granny, in a cautious
whisper. “Some will have it that he’s worshippin’ the devil; for how
else could he get the gold and silver they say he has? He disappears now
and again,–vanishes, as the story is, down into the ground or into some
cave of the hills, and comes back with a power of money to bury
somewhere; for he never spends it honestly like other folks.”

I pondered over the woman’s narrative, vainly seeking for an
explanation, and finally setting it down to the exaggeration of the
simple country people. Parts of it tallied with my own observations;
but, of course, I was prepared to accept any other solution of the
mystery than that which was popularly given.

“The main thing,” I said, “for you to consider is whether or no he is a
suitable companion for Winifred. Whatever his pursuits may be, I believe
he is of too unsettled and visionary a mind to have a good influence
upon the child.”

“Some do say, of course, that he’s mad,” reflected Mrs. Meehan; “and
sure he goes by the name of ‘the mad schoolmaster.'”

“Such may be the true state of the case,” I said musingly; “and it would
be all the more reason for preventing his constant association with
Winifred.”

“Mad he may be,” observed Granny Meehan; “though you daren’t say that
much to Miss Winifred. She ever and always stands up for him. When the
scholars were leavin’ the school above, she spoke up for the
schoolmaster, and didn’t spare those that deserted him. So from that day
to this he comes here every day of the week to teach her.”

“He is still teaching her, then?” I inquired.

“To be sure, he is, ma’am! He tells her that she’s never too old for the
learnin’–not if she was the age of that old oak there before the door.”

Granny Meehan fell into a deep and apparently painful reverie, out of
which she roused herself to say, apprehensively lowering her voice to
the utmost:

“And, ma’am, what makes me the most anxious of all is the trinkets he
do be givin’ her. I’d never have known a word about it, but my
hearin’–praise be to God for His goodness!–is mighty sharp, even
though I haven’t the sight of my eyes; and I heard some words he let
fall, and next the sound of metal striking against metal, like the
tinkle of a bell.”

“And then?” I asked.

“Why, then I taxed Miss Winifred with what was goin’ on, and she’s as
truthful as the day and wouldn’t deny nothin’. So she up and told me of
the beautiful trinkets of real gold he gave her. And I was vexed enough
at it, and bid her throw them in the fire; fearin’ mebbe they were fairy
gold that would be meltin’ away, leavin’ ill luck behind.”

“What did Winifred say to that?”

“She just fired up and bid me hold my peace, for a wicked old woman–she
did indeed, ma’am.”

And here Granny Meehan softly wiped away a tear.

“But I know she didn’t mean it, the darlin’! And she was that soft and
lovin’ after that I could have forgiven her far more.”

I remembered, while Granny spoke, the dainty, exquisitely wrought
bracelet which I had seen displayed upon an oak leaf. But I preferred to
keep that knowledge to myself and to hear all that the old woman had to
tell. She presently added:

“Well, ma’am, when he comes the next day Winifred up and tells him what
she did; and he flies into such a passion that I declare to you I was
frightened nearly out of my wits. Such a-ragin’ and a-stampin’ as went
on, for all the world like a storm roarin’ through the castle on the
wild nights. But Miss Winifred has that power over him that you’d think
it was a fairy was in it, layin’ spells over him. And she scolded him
for his bad temper, just as would myself; and stamped her foot at him.
And the next thing I heard him askin’ her pardon, quiet as a lamb.”

“She’s a strange child,” I exclaimed.

“And why wouldn’t she with the upbringin’ she’s had?” cried Granny
Meehan. “But don’t you think now, ma’am dear, that it’s enough to make
me heart ache with trouble to have the schoolmaster bringin’ his
trinkets here? How would he come honestly by such things? Not that I
believe he steals them, ma’am–it isn’t that.”

She paused in her perplexity; adding quickly, in the awestruck tone in
which the simple people of the remote country districts speak of things
which they suppose to be beyond mortal ken:

“Sure, then, ma’am, the only way he could come by them is through the
old fellow himself, barrin’ he gets them from the ‘good people.'”

“But this Niall is a good man, is he not?”

“I never heard ill of him but that I’m tellin’ you of,” replied Granny
Meehan. “Still, we’re warned that the devil himself can take on the
likeness of an angel of light; and if that’s so, what’s to hinder old
Niall from bein’ sold body and soul to the devil?”

“Well, I think we’d better give him the benefit of the doubt,” I said.
“If he appears to be a good man, let us believe that he is.”

“Yes, mebbe you’re right,” observed Granny Meehan. “And the Lord forgive
me for speakin’ ill of my neighbors! But it’s all out of my anxiety for
Miss Winifred. The baubles may come not from the powers of darkness at
all, but from the ‘good people’; and that would be harmless enough,
anyhow.”

“In America we have no fairies–or good people, as you call them,” I
said jestingly.

“They tell me they’re scarce enough in Ireland these days,” Mrs. Meehan
replied gravely. “It’s only here among the hills we have them at all, at
all.”




“I am afraid I should have to see to believe,” I said, laughing. “And
now, Mrs. Meehan, in all our talk you have not told me who the
schoolmaster is.”

A deadly paleness overspread the old woman’s face, and she sank back
into the chair.

“The Lord between us and harm!” she muttered, “don’t ask me that,–don’t
now, asthore!”

“But you know.”

“Is it _I_ know?” she cried. “Is it _I_ would be pryin’ into such
things?”

I was more puzzled than ever. There was actual terror in Granny’s tone.

“How absurd!” I said, partly vexed. “What mystery can there be which
makes you afraid even to hint at it?”

She leaned toward me, her blind eyes rolling in their sockets, her thin
lips quivering.

“A hint I’ll give you,” she said, “to keep you, mebbe, from talkin’
foolishly and comin’ to harm. He’s of the old stock, I believe in my
heart, come back to earth, or enchanted here, just to keep an eye on
what’s goin’ on.”

I laughed aloud. But she raised her hand in solemn warning.

“Don’t for your life–don’t make game of things of that sort!”

“Well, putting all that aside,” I said, with some impatience, “what is
the general opinion of the country people about this man?”

I asked this decisive question, though I had a pretty fair notion of
what it might be from the fragmentary hints of my landlord.

“Well, it’s good and it’s bad,” she replied, nodding her head
impressively. “Truth to tell, there’s so many stories goin’ about the
schoolmaster that it’s hard to know the right from the wrong. There’s
them, as I was sayin’, that declares he’s mad, and there’s more that’ll
tell you he’s worse. And mind you, ma’am dear, none of them knows about
the trinkets I was speakin’ of, barrin’ Miss Winifred and myself. For
she put it on me not to tell; and of course I didn’t till the blessed
moment when I opened my heart to you, knowin’ well that you’d never let
a word of what I told you pass your lips.”

“I shall keep the secret, of course,” I promised; adding: “As to the
man’s character, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two
opinions; but I still think him an unsuitable companion for Winifred,
because he is likely to fill her head with all kinds of nonsense.”

“It’s God’s truth you’re tellin’,” said the old woman. “But Miss
Winifred’s that fond of him there’s no use in talkin’ agin him.”

There was a touch of bitterness in Granny Meehan’s tone. It was evident
that this attached nurse resented, in so far as it was in her gentle
nature to resent, her young charge’s partiality for the mysterious old
man.

“And Miss Winifred,” she continued, “sweet and all as she is, can be as
wilful as the wind. She has known the old man all her life, and he tells
her all the queer stories of the mountains and glens and rivers; and he
acts toward her as if she were a grand, fine lady–and so she is, for
the matter of that; for the child comes of a splendid old stock on both
sides.”

I sat listening to the old woman, and thought how the strange things
she had told and the strange character we were discussing fitted in with
the place in which it was being told: the massive stone walls, and the
lozenged windows with their metal crossbars; the air of times long past
which hung over everything; the blind woman, who might have been sitting
there forever in the solitude of her blindness.

“Mebbe, ma’am,” said Granny Meehan, breaking a silence which had fallen
between us, “if you were to say a word to her–I can tell by the sound
of her voice when she names you that she’s taken a very great likin’ to
you–mebbe she’d listen.”

“Well, if this Niall has so strong an influence over her as you say,
believe me the word of a stranger would do no good. It might possibly do
harm in prejudicing her strongly against me. It is better to win her
confidence first, if I can. Meanwhile I shall keep my eye upon the
schoolmaster and find out all I can concerning him. Of course I shall
not be very long in the neighborhood, for I intend returning to America
during the summer.”

“America is a fine country, they tell me,” said Granny Meehan, with a
sigh. “And if I had my sight, mebbe it’s there I’d be goin’ some day,
when–” she stopped abruptly, as if afraid to say too much; and then
placidly continued: “Glory be to God for all His mercies! it wasn’t to
be. In His wisdom He seen that blindness was the best thing for me.”

A smile, bright and soft as a summer sunset, lighted up her old face as
she spoke; but even as I looked at her, with wonder and admiration at
her faith, which was sublime in its simplicity, a black shadow fell
suddenly upon the window-pane. I did not know what it was at first, and
fancied that some great bird, which had built an eyrie in the ruined
donjon, had swooped down to earth in the light of day. I soon perceived
my mistake. It was the figure of the schoolmaster which had thus shut
out the sunlight, and I imagined there was something menacing in its
attitude.

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