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.”