THE SCHOOLMASTER’S SECRET

I had waited with breathless interest for what Niall might have to say;
but he put his whole secret in the opening words of his narrative.

“I am,” he began, “a gold-seeker–a hunter for treasure-trove.”

“A gold-seeker?” I repeated, amazed and incredulous; though here was the
explanation of many mysteries.

“Yes. Here, in these very mountains gold has been found time and time
again. There were mines here scarce a hundred years ago; ’tis said that
ten thousand pounds’ worth of gold was dug up in two months. Ten
thousand pounds! Think of it!”

Niall stopped, full of a suppressed emotion, which threatened, I
thought, to shake his strong frame to pieces.

“The old minstrels sang of the gold–the yellow gold, the red gold; and,
touching the strings of their harps, the bards told the kings of other
days of treasure that had been buried–vases, ornaments, trinkets of all
sorts–”

“But tell me,” I interrupted, “have you found any of these things?”

“I have found these treasures time and again. Some of them are now in
the British Museum, and the money for them in my cave at the
Phoul-a-Phooka with the other valuables, save those which I gave to my
little lady. My storehouse is in the loneliest spot, where the timorous
dare not venture, where the wild horse of the legend keeps guard for
me. Once I brought my little lady there, and her eyes were so dazzled
she covered them with her hands.”

I listened as in a dream.

“But gold?” I asked, in an awe-stricken voice. “Have you found–”

“About a hundred ounces,” he replied, “of genuine pure gold. But what is
a hundred ounces where tons, perhaps, lie buried?”

He sprang up and paced the room, a fever, almost of insanity, glowing on
his cheeks and in his eyes. I watched with a new interest this man, who
was making the hills and streams of his loved Ireland yield up this
treasure.

“It seems like a fairy-tale,” I said.

“It is not fairy gold,” Niall cried, with a grim smile; “and it has cost
me years of slavery. I have guarded the secret with my life. I have
spent long, lonely years in this cheerless cabin, haunting the streams
by night, washing and rewashing the precious clay in the chill dawn,
testing the gold in the fire of yonder hearth, often when the rest of
the world was sleeping. Gold has been my idol, my one devotion.”

“Do you get the gold in large pieces?”

“In every size, from the tiniest sparkle worth about sixpence to a lump
worth several shillings.”

“It is wonderful, wonderful!” I could only repeat.

“My studies in the East helped me much in my work,” Niall observed; “but
indeed for years past the study of precious metals, and how to procure
them, has been the one object of my life.”

“Even should your secret come to light,” I ventured to say, “surely
there is enough for every one in the bowels of the earth.”

“There may be,” Niall cried wildly–“oh, there may be; but no one must
know of it till I have got my portion! Besides, as all gold-seekers
know, the gold is as uncertain as a fickle woman. Sometimes in a stream
there is but a little, or there will be much in one portion of the
river’s bed and none at all in the other.”

“Did Roderick know?” I asked.

“Never. I was but beginning my search when he went away. I would not
have told him in any case. He would have wanted to share our good
fortune with every one.”

“Winifred knows?”

“Yes, she knows. I could trust her with my secret.”

He fell into deep abstraction; and I, watching him, could scarcely
realize that this quiet, thoughtful man was the same wild being who had
terrified me during the storm. It showed me the fearful power of gold
over the human heart, and how it was capable of changing an ordinary
gentleman of studious habits into the semblance of a wild beast. He
roused himself all at once to say:

“You spoke of some plan of yours for the child?”

“My plan for Winifred,” I said boldly, though with some inward fear,
“was to take her away with me to America, and put her at a convent
school, where she should be educated as befits her station in life.”

His face grew dark as I spoke, and he flashed upon me one of his old
suspicious glances.

“You wanted to take her to America! How am I to know that you are not,
after all, an agent sent by Roderick or by some of the mother’s people?”

“You have only my word for it,” I said, slightly drawing myself up. “I
can offer no other proof.”

“I suppose it is all right,” he replied, with another keen look and a
deep sigh; “if not, then has misfortune indeed overtaken me.”

This was said as if to himself; and presently, raising his voice, he
asked:

“Pray what do they teach at these convent schools?”

“They teach their pupils to be Christian ladies,” I answered warmly.

He was silent again for a moment or two, then he went on:

“I have grounded her in all her studies, and if she continues with me
she will be thoroughly well instructed in many branches. But there are
some things I can not teach her. I know that all too well.”

“And those are precisely what the child would learn at a convent
school,” I put in eagerly.

“Think for a moment,” he exclaimed vehemently, “what such a parting
would mean to me! I am old. I might never see her again. Even if I can
rely on your good faith once you are out of my sight, I will forever
stand in fear of some evil befalling her, some mischance which would
upset all my plans.”

“I thought you intended to take her to America yourself?” I said.

“Yes; to find her father, and to persuade him to come back with us to
his native land.”

“But he might refuse.”

“That would be unlikely, unless he was married again. In that case, I
would bring Winifred back to be lady of the castle.”

I sat thoughtful, musing over this plan, which seemed like a dream of
romance. But Niall’s voice broke in on my musings:

“Should I let the child go with you, it is on condition that she does
not see Roderick until I give my consent; and should I want her back
here in the meantime, she must come.”

“She is not to see her father?”

“No, no! She must go direct to the school, and Roderick must not know of
her presence there.”

“It seems hard!” I murmured.

“Hard! But does he deserve better?” said Niall. “For whatever cause, he
has left Winifred to my care and that of Mrs. Meehan all these years.”

“That is true,” I responded; “and I accept the conditions.”

“It will be the saddest moment of my life when I see my little lady
depart,” Niall exclaimed; and already his face was drawn and haggard and
his voice husky at the prospect. “But should my dream be realized, she
will acquire the manner, the accomplishments, the graces which our
Wicklow hills can not furnish. You are right; she must go.”

I was at once touched and astonished at his ready compliance with my
wishes. I had feared it might be a tedious task to overcome his
objections. But the clear mind of the man had at once perceived the
advantages of my plan.

“You see, I am putting entire trust in you. I am confiding Winifred to
you. I have already told you my secret.”

“You shall never have cause to regret either,” I cried warmly. “And as
for the conditions, they shall be put down in writing, and Winifred
shall be restored to you when and where you desire.”

“What will these hills be like without her!” he exclaimed, rising and
going to the window.

There was again that wildness in tone and manner as of a mind which had
become somewhat unsettled by the strange, wandering life he had led,
with its fever of suspense and excitement.

“What will the greensward be like, child of my heart, when your foot no
more shall press it? What will the hills be like when your eyes–asthore
machree!–shall not look upon them? And the Glen of the Dargle shall
have lost its charm when you are not there, its spirit!”




He tossed his arms above his head and rushed wildly from the cabin. I
waited for a time; but as he did not return, I slowly followed the
homeward path, content with what I had accomplished for one day, but
wondering much at the strange revelations which Niall had made.

Before I reached home I suddenly met Winifred. Her face was clouded, and
at first she scarcely noticed me.

“What is the matter with Niall?” she asked. “I met him and he would not
look at me. I called his name, but he ran away and would not speak.”

“He will tell you all in good time,” I answered soothingly.

“It is you!” she said, looking at me keenly, with a glance like that of
her kinsman. “You have been vexing him: saying something that he did not
like.”

“We must all have things said to us that we do not like, when it is for
our good,” I remarked gravely.

“I wish you had never come here! I wish you would go away!” Winifred
exclaimed, stamping her little foot till it stuck in the soft earth.

“See, how useless is ill-temper!” I said; for I was rather annoyed by
her petulance. “You have spoiled your pretty shoe. And as for going
away, when I go, you will go too.”

She turned pale, then trembled and stammered out a question or two:

“I–go–with you? Where?”

“All the way to America.”

“To America!” said Winifred, in an amazement which seemed blended with
fear or emotion of some sort.

“Yes; over the great sea,” I went on, “where you will see many new and
beautiful things.”

“But I don’t want to see them!” she replied, with an energy that
startled me.

“That is not a nice way to put it, dear,” I said gently. “I hope,
indeed, you will be a very good girl and give me as little trouble as
possible. You will have to leave your wilful ways in the mountains with
the sprites.”

“Niall will never allow it!” she cried, with childish triumph.

“Niall has just said ‘Yes.’ So I give you a month to prepare,” I
declared firmly. I had determined to exert my authority from that moment
forward, as it was necessary that I should.

“Niall has said ‘Yes’!” she repeated, drawing a sharp breath and
speaking as one in a dream. Her lip quivered; two tears shone in her
eyes, but she would not let them fall. Turning on me instead, with a
curious tone of command, she asked:

“Who are you?”

“A friend.”

“An enemy, I think!” said Winifred, and with that she turned sharply
away and was soon hidden in the brushwood. But I heard her only a few
moments afterward, sobbing aloud and calling, as Niall had done, on
Nature:

“I can’t leave the hills and the streams and the valleys! I can’t leave
Wicklow and the Dargle and the castle, and dear Granny and Moira and
Barney and Niall! Oh, it would break my heart!”

She sobbed again for a few moments; then her voice rang out defiantly:

“I will _not_ go! I will hide in the hills, as the O’Byrnes did in the
wars. I will live in a cave like them and not go to that hateful
America.”

I went back to the inn, resolving to try to win the child over to my
ideas as I had done her uncle. I foresaw many difficulties in the way;
and as I sat down on the wooden bench outside the door I began to wonder
if my idea was, after all, a mistaken one. The air was very fresh and
pure after the storm; the verdure of that Emerald Isle, so fondly
remembered by its exiled sons and daughters, was rich and glowing after
the rain; and the hills were shrouded in a golden haze, darkening into
purple near the summit. I sat and listened to a thrush singing in the
lilac bush near which I had seen Winifred sitting on the morning of our
visit to the castle, till a strange peace stole over me and I lost all
my fears.

Continue Reading

THE SCHOOLMASTER’S TALE

“You must know,” Niall began, “that Winifred is a descendant of the
proud race which inhabited the castle wherein the child now lives. You
are not, I am sure, acquainted with the history of her ancestors, nor
shall I tell it. But for a thousand years they have been foremost in
war, in minstrelsy, in beauty, in hospitality, in benefactions to the
Church and in charity to the poor. Winifred is of that race and–” he
paused and drew himself up with some pride–“and so am I.”

Suddenly I uttered an exclamation of astonishment.

“I am the uncle of her father. This part of the story she has not
learned; but she does know that for years it has been the dream of my
life to restore the old castle, to bring back the fallen glories of our
race. I, being a younger brother, was debarred from the line of
succession. That fact early stirred me into bitterness; the more so as
my elder brother, Winifred’s grandfather, was of an easy and
pleasure-loving temperament. Far from doing anything to improve matters,
he seemed to let everything go. I gradually withdrew from all
intercourse with my fellow men. I dwelt alone, in a secluded part of the
castle, and gave myself up to study. I desired to master the secrets of
the universe, and in the course of my studies I learned one thing.”

He stopped and looked at me fixedly.

“And that is the secret which I have striven so hard to keep and which I
am about to confide to you. But let that pass for the present. My
brother had an only son, and he was a son after my own heart. He seemed
to combine in himself all the best qualities of our race. He was daring,
generous, impulsive, yet steadfast and enduring. Gifted with great
personal beauty, he had rare talents and a most winning manner. On him I
built my hopes. He would in some way gain wealth, honor, renown. I
thought I had already the key to the first, but I wanted him to win the
others by his own efforts. I goaded him into action; I disgusted him
with the life of a country gentleman which his father had led–and a
poor and obscure one at that.”

Niall sighed deeply as he resumed:

“Sometimes, after an interview with me, he would mount his white horse
and gallop over the country, to control the agitation which my words had
awakened in him. He went away at last to Dublin seeking fame. Every now
and then he returned to tell me of his pursuits, and I urged him on more
and more. Suddenly his interest began to slacken, and I saw that it had
taken another direction. Next thing I heard he was married. His wife was
a mere fine lady, though of a worthy stock. But I parted from Roderick
in anger. We had a bitter quarrel. In his anger he called the old castle
a ruin, laughed at my plans for restoring it, and declared he would
never bring his wife there nor permit her to see its ruinous state.
After that he went away.”

It seemed as if Niall’s emotion would at this point prevent him from
continuing the story; but he controlled himself by an effort and went
on.

“Roderick returned only once, dressed in deep mourning, and bringing
with him a child about five years old. That was Winifred. He left her in
care of Mrs. Meehan. He promised to come back some day or send for his
daughter, but he gave no clue as to his own subsequent movements. I
myself believe he went to America. Since then I have seen in the child
the hope of our race. She has taken her father’s place in my heart.”

“But how came she to be ignorant that you were her father’s uncle?
Surely the neighbors, especially Mrs. Meehan, must have known.”

“The neighbors knew nothing. I had lived, as I told you, in retirement,
and had been absent, spending many years in the Far East. I had ceased
to attend church once youth had passed, and was never seen in public. I
vanished out of the memory of all save a few old servants, who dropped
off one by one. Mrs. Meehan may suspect something of the truth, but she
knows nothing for a certainty.”

I smiled, remembering the dark hints the blind woman had thrown out.

“But how, then,” I asked, “did you come to be known–”

“As the schoolmaster?” he put in. “I abandoned the castle for purposes
of my own. I went to live in this cabin in the hills, and I took
pupils–partly to divert attention from my real pursuits, partly to
enable me to live.”

I waited silently for the conclusion of the strange narrative; but he
had fallen into profound thought, and sat staring at the floor, seeming
to have forgotten my presence. At last he went on:

“Winifred, as I have said, was regarded by me as the hope of our race.
Without revealing to her our relationship, I treated her with the
deepest respect, in order to give her some idea of the importance of her
position as heiress of an ancient house, which, though obscured for a
time, is destined one day to be restored.”

As the old man spoke thus, something of his former excitement returned,
and he stood up, pacing the room, his eyes glowing and his features
working convulsively. Now, nothing in the whole affair had more
surprised me than the manner in which Niall had passed from a state of
almost insane fury into the quiet courtesy of a well-bred man; so I
waited till his excitement had once more subsided. Then he sat down
again upon the three-cornered stool whence he had arisen, and continued:

“If Roderick be still living, I shall find him one day and restore his
child to him. But it must be through me that this restoration is
effected; and I must at the same time offer him the means of repairing
the old castle and taking up again the life of a country gentleman.”

“Have you any reason to think he is living?” I asked.

“Oh, I do not know!” Niall answered mournfully. “For many years he sent
remittances and inquired for the child, saying that he would one day
claim her. Lately both money and letters have ceased. A rumor reached
me–I scarcely know how–that Roderick had married a second wife. Even
if that be true, he must have changed indeed if he can forget his own
child. I am haunted forever by the fear that he may, after all, be dead;
or that, living, he might one day claim Winifred and take her away from
Ireland forever. And that I will never permit.”

I was half afraid of another outbreak; but it did not come. He went on,
in a calm and composed tone of voice:

“I must confess that when I heard you were here–”

“You fancied, perhaps, that I was the second wife?” I said, smiling.

“What I fancied matters little!” he cried, almost brusquely. “But I made
up my mind that if you had come here on such a mission, you should
return disappointed.”

“Now, I may as well admit,” I said deliberately, “that I have had
thoughts of carrying Winifred away.”

He started.

“Not as the result of a preconcerted plan,” I hastened to add; “for I
never heard of Winifred nor of the castle till I came here, and I could
not even now tell you the name of her father. I have heard him spoken of
merely as Roderick.”

“Roderick O’Byrne,” said Niall, fixing his keen eyes upon my face.

It was my turn to start and to color violently, with the sudden
recollection.

“So you do, perhaps, know Mr. Roderick O’Byrne, after all?” said the
schoolmaster, dryly; and I saw that his former suspicions were revived.

“Know him? Why, yes. But as the father of Winifred–no.”

“And where, may I ask, have you met him?”

“In New York city.”

He bent eagerly forward.

“Tell me–oh, tell me how long ago was that?”

“Within the last six months.”

“Then he is still alive?”

“He was when I sailed from New York,” I assented.

Tears which he could not repress forced themselves from the old man’s
eyes and flowed down his cheeks. They were tears of joy and relief.

“O Roderick!” he murmured; “dear Roderick, son of my heart, you are upon
the green earth still, and I feared you had left it for evermore!”

“Moreover,” I went on, “you are altogether wrong in supposing he is
married again.”

“What’s that you say?” he cried joyfully. “Living and still a widower?”

“Living and still a widower.”

“You are sure of that?”




“Quite sure.”

Niall muttered some exclamation in Irish, the meaning of which I did not
know; then he turned upon me with a beaming smile.

“You are as the dawn that heralds a bright day, as the sun that peeps
from out a dark cloud, as a flower thrusting its head through the snow!”

I sat watching the schoolmaster with real gratification at the pleasure
I had given him. Then he asked:

“He never spoke to you of Winifred?”

“Never.”

“Nor of Wicklow?”

“Nor of Wicklow.”

“He has forgotten Ireland!” cried the old man bitterly. “He has become
Americanized, as they all do.”

“On the contrary,” I observed. “I heard him speak once of Ireland, and
in a way I shall never forget.”

He looked at me with sudden keenness, even suspicion; and I smiled.

“I know what you are smiling at!” Niall cried, with one of those quick
flashes of intelligence which reminded me of Winifred.

“Do you?” I said, laughing outright. “Well, then, I may as well tell you
I was smiling at the suspicion I saw in your eyes–smiling at the
contrast between my gray hairs and wrinkles and Roderick O’Byrne as I
saw him last.”

“Yet Roderick is no boy,” argued Niall. “Roderick is close to forty.”

“He has the secret of perpetual youth,” I said, warming at the
remembrance. “Winifred has it too; she will never grow old. But now my
heart is more than ever in your plans, and I should like to possess your
entire confidence,–to know, for instance, how the wealth is to be
obtained with which to restore the ancient castle.”

“That,” said Niall, impressively, “is the secret which hitherto I have
shared with no one save Winifred, and which I am about to impart to you.
But remember your promise is as solemn, as binding as an oath.”

“I remember,” I said; “and I tell you once more that no word of your
secret shall ever be repeated by me to any one without your express
permission. Take my word for it.”

Niall stood up and looked all about him, examined the door and the
window, went outside and walked around the cabin, tried the chinks in
the walls; and when he was quite convinced that no living thing was in
the vicinity, he drew a stool near, and, laying his sugar-loaf hat upon
the floor, began to pour into my ears a tale which seemed almost
magical. His appearance changed, too, as he went on with his narrative.
His eyes, alight with enthusiasm, presently took on an expression merely
of greed. The craving for gold was written on every line of his face. It
was so plain a lesson against avarice that involuntarily I shuddered.

He tossed his hair from his forehead, while his features worked
convulsively; and it was only when he left that part of the subject
which related to mere gold, and rose once more to the plan he had in
view of restoring the old castle, that he brightened up again. Then I
saw in him one of those mysterious resemblances which run through a
race: a likeness to Roderick–gay, handsome, and comparatively young; a
likeness to Winifred herself.

I had a curious feeling of unreality as I sat there and listened. The
old man might be Roderick O’Byrne himself after the passage of a score
or more of years; the cabin might be an enchanted spot, which would
vanish away at touch of a wizard’s wand; and these rude chairs and
tables might be condemned by the same strange witchery to remain forever
inanimate. I had to shake myself to get rid of this feeling which crept
over me, and seemed to overpower the sober common-sense, the practical
and prosaic wisdom, which seem to spring from the American soil.

Continue Reading

A VISIT TO THE SCHOOLMASTER

I set out, with Barney as my guide; but Barney had stoutly declared that
he would go only a part of the way, as he did not want to trust himself
anywhere in the neighborhood of the schoolhouse.

“Sure I went to school there for the length of a whole winter,” he said;
“and the master drove the larnin’ into my head. He was a kind man,
except when the anger rose on him. But I was afeard of him, and at long
last I ran away and hid, and wouldn’t go next or nigh him any more.”

“You were very foolish,” I remarked. “He could have given you an
education and prepared you to go to America, if such is your intention.”

But Barney was not to be moved in his opinion, and went on beside me in
dogged silence till we came to a turn in the road, where he left me,
refusing to go a step further.

“You can’t miss the road now, ma’am,” he declared. “Just push along the
way you’re goin’ till you come to the next turn and then you’ll have the
schoolhouse foreninst you.”

I thanked him and walked on in the path directed, the cool mountain air
fanning my cheeks, which were heated by the walk. It was an enchanting
scene, and I stopped more than once before reaching that turn in the
road described by Barney. There, sheltered to some extent by an
overhanging crag, stood the cabin of the “mad schoolmaster,” in one of
the loveliest, as it was one of the wildest, spots in all that beautiful
region.

I hesitated but an instant; then, stepping forward, knocked at the door.
I opened it, after I had knocked several times without receiving any
answer, and entered the cheerless schoolroom. It was quite undisturbed,
as though this remarkable man still expected scholars. The rude seats
were there, the cracked slates, the table which had served as the
master’s desk; a map or two still hung upon the wall. A heap of ashes
was on the hearth; above it, hanging from a hook, the identical iron pot
in which Niall, it was said, had been seen to boil the stones. There was
something weird in the scene, and I felt a chill creeping over me. It
required all my common-sense to throw off the impression that the rustic
opinion of the occupant of the cottage might be, after all, correct.

As I looked around me and waited, the blue sky without became suddenly
overclouded. I stepped to the window. A glorious sight met my eyes, but
I knew that it meant nothing less than a mountain storm; and here was I
in such a place, at a considerable distance from home. Mass after mass
of inky-black clouds swept over the mountain, driven by the wind,
obscuring the pale blue and gold which had been so lately predominant.
The wind, too, began to rise, blowing in gusts which swept over and
around the cabin, but mercifully left it unharmed, because of the
protection afforded by the high rock. But it rattled the windows and
whistled and blew, and finally brought the rain down in a fearful
torrent. Flashes of lightning leaped from crag to crag, uniting them by
one vast chain. Each was followed by a roar of thunder, re-echoed
through the hills.

It was an awful scene, and I trembled with an unknown fear, especially
when I felt rather than saw that some one was close behind me. I turned
slowly with that fascination which one feels to behold a dreaded object;
and there, quite near me indeed, stood the schoolmaster. I suppose his
coming must have been unnoticed in the roar of the tempest. I could not
otherwise account for his presence. The strange cloak, or outer garment,
which he wore seemed perfectly dry; and I wondered how he could have
come in from such rain apparently without getting wet. The smile upon
his lips was certainly a mocking one; and as I faced him thus I felt
afraid with the same cold, sickly fear. His eyes had in them a gleam
which I did not like–of cunning, almost of ferocity.

“You have come,” he said, without any previous salutation, “to pry into
a mystery; and I tell you you shall not do it. Rather than that you
should succeed in the attempt I would hide you away in one of those
hills, from which you should never escape.”

I strove to speak, but my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth; and I
could only gaze into those strange, gleaming eyes of his, from which I
was afraid to remove my own.

“You have come from America,” he said; “perhaps it is to get _her_. And
that you shall never do till my plans are completed.”

“To get whom?” I faltered out.

“_Whom?_” he thundered in a terrible voice, which set me trembling more
than ever. “You know whom. You are trying to win Winifred from me–the
child of my heart, beautiful as the mountain stream, and wayward as the
breeze that stirs its surface.”

His face changed and softened and his very voice sunk to one of peculiar
sweetness as he spoke of the child. But in an instant again he had
resumed his former wildness and harshness of tone and demeanor.

“You are trying to win the child from me,” he went on; “to destroy my
influence over her, to upset my plans. But you shall not do it–I say
you shall not do it!”

He glared into my face as he spoke, with an expression which only too
closely resembled that of a wild beast. Words rose to my lips. I hardly
knew what I said.

“But are you not a Christian–you are a God-fearing man?”

It was a strange question, and he answered it with a sneer fearful to
see.

“God-fearing? I used to be so when I knelt, a gossoon, at my mother’s
knee; and when, a stripling, I led the village choir. But so I am not
now. I have only one god, and that is gold.”

He brought out the words with a fearful power, as though he hurled them
against something. His voice actually rose above the storm, and he threw
back his head as though in defiance of the very heavens.

I shuddered, but I spoke with more courage than I had hitherto done.

“If all that is true,” I said, “surely you will see yourself that you
are no companion for Winifred.”

“No companion for my little lady?” he repeated in surprise, with that
same softening of his face and tone I had before remarked. “There you
are wrong. I guard her as the rock guards the little flower which grows
in its crevice, as the gardener guards a cherished plant, as the miner
guards his rarest gem. I teach her to pray, to kneel in church down
yonder, to believe, to hope, to love; because all that is her shield and
safeguard against the great false world into which she will have to go.
Why, Father Owen himself has scarce done more for her on the score of
religion. I tell her tales of the saints and holy people who sleep in
the soil of Ireland; but all the while I am a sinner–a black
sinner–with but one god, whom I worship with all my might, and for whom
I slave day and night.”

“You can not be what you say if you have done all that for Winifred,” I
ventured.

“I am what I say!” he cried, turning on me with a snarl. “And so you
shall find if you attempt to meddle with me; for I have a secret, and if
you were to discover that–” he paused–“I believe I would kill you!”

My fear was growing every instant, till I felt that I must faint away
with the force of it; but I stammered out:

“I don’t want to meddle with you or to discover your secret; I want to
find out if you are a safe companion for Winifred, and if you will help
me in a plan I have in view.”

“A plan?” he said wildly. “I knew it was so. A plan to take Winifred
away, to undo all my work, to thwart the plans which I have had in my
mind for years! Beware how you make the attempt–beware, I tell you!”

A sudden inspiration, perhaps from above, came to me, and I said as
steadily as possible:

“It would be far better than making all these idle threats to confide in
me and tell me as much or as little of your plans as you please. I am a
stranger; I have no object in interfering in the affair, except that I
am deeply interested in Winifred, and would do anything possible for her
good. You love the little girl too, so there is common ground on which
to work.”

“God knows I do love her!” he cried fervently. “And if I could only
believe what you say!”

He looked at me doubtfully–a long, searching look.

“You may believe it,” I said, gaining confidence from his changed
manner. Still, his eyes from under their shaggy brows peered into my
face as he asked:

“You never read, perhaps, of the Lagenian mines?”–with a look of
cunning crossing his face.

“In the lines of the poet only,” I replied, surprised at the sudden
change of subject and at the question.

Niall looked at me long and steadily, and my fear of him began to grow
less. He had the voice and speech of an educated man–not educated in
the sense which was common enough with country schoolmasters in Ireland,
who sometimes combined a really wonderful knowledge with rustic
simplicity. And he had scarcely a trace of the accent of the country.

“What if I were to take a desperate chance,” he said suddenly, “and tell
you all, all? I have whispered it to the stars, the hills, the running
waters, but never before to human ears except those of my little lady.
If you are true and honest, God deal with you accordingly. If you are
not, I shall be the instrument of your punishment. I call the thunders
to witness that I shall punish you if I have to walk the world over to
do so; if I have to follow you by mountain and moor, over the sea and
across whole continents.”




A terrific flash of lightning almost blinded us as he took this
tremendous oath, which terrified me almost as much as though I were
really planning the treachery he feared. I covered my eyes with my
hands, while crash upon crash of thunder that followed nearly deafened
us. Niall sat tranquil and unmoved.

“I love the voice of the storm,” he murmured presently. “It is Nature at
its grandest–Nature’s God commanding, threatening.”

When the last echo of the thunder died away he turned back again to the
subject of our discourse.

“If I should trust you with my secret,” he began again, with that same
strange, wild manner which led me to believe that his mind was more or
less unhinged, “you will have to swear in presence of the great Jehovah,
the God of the thunder, the God of vengeance, that you will not betray
it.”

“I can not swear,” I said firmly; “but I will promise solemnly to keep
your secret, if you can assure me that there is nothing in it which
would injure any one, or which I should be bound in conscience to
declare.”

“Oh, you have a conscience!” cried this singular being, with his evil
sneer. “Well, so much the better for our bargain, especially if it is a
working conscience.”

“And you have a conscience too,” I declared, almost sternly; “though you
may seek to deaden it–that Catholic conscience which is always sure to
awaken sooner or later.”

He laughed.

“I suppose I have it about me somewhere, and there will be enough of it
any way to make me keep an oath.” He said this meaningly; adding: “So,
before I begin my tale, weigh all the chances. If you are a traitor, go
away now: leave Wicklow, leave Ireland, and no harm is done. But stay,
work out your treachery, and you shall die by my hand!”

I shuddered, but answered bravely:

“You need fear no treachery on my part–I promise that.”

“Then swear,” he cried,–“swear!”

“I will not swear,” I said; “but I will promise.”

“Come out with me,” he roared in that voice of his, so terrible when
once roused to anger, “and promise in the face of heaven, with the eye
of God looking down upon you.”

He seemed to tower above me like some great giant, some Titan of the
hills; his face dark with resolve, his eyes gleaming, his long hair
streaming from under the sugar-loaf hat down about his shoulders. He
seized me by the arm and hurried me to the door.

Hardly knowing what I did, I repeated after him some formula–a promise
binding, certainly, as any oath. As I did so, by one of those rare
coincidences, the sun burst out over the hills, flooding all the valleys
and resting lovingly upon the highest mountain peaks.

“The smile of God is with us,” Niall said, his own face transformed by a
smile which softened it as the sunshine did the rocks. “And now I shall
trust you; and if you be good and true, why, then, we shall work
together for the dear little lady, and perhaps you will help me to carry
out my plans.”

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