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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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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