AT THE CONVENT

I went up to see Winifred next day, and, in the light of my new
discoveries, to talk with her over past, present, and future. She came
into the dimly-lighted convent parlor with something of her former
brightness. Her little figure was particularly graceful and symmetrical
in the somber black of the costume. An attempt had been made to brush
her curls as smooth as the regulations required, but they still broke
out mutinously; her eyes shone; while her complexion, though paler than
before, was clear and healthful. All present in the parlor–for it was
visiting-day–turned to look at her, and I heard more than one whispered
inquiry concerning her in the groups that sat around.

I inquired first about her school-life–her lessons and all those little
details of convent life familiar to girls who have ever been at
boarding-school.

“I am singing in the choir now,” she told me; “and I like that very
much. Did you ever sing in a choir when you were little?”

“No,” I answered; “for the best of all reasons, that I had no voice.”

“Well, we practise a great deal,” she went on; “and that is always nice.
I think my voice sounded best on the hills. Do you remember when I used
to sit on the tree over the Dargle? Well I could raise my voice very
high then.”

“I remember well,” I replied; “and those old ballads you sang suited
your voice. But I am glad you are getting interested in the choir and in
your singing lessons.”

“Yes, and some of my other lessons I like very much. And, then, we are
to have a play, in which I am to take the part of an Indian.”

“You ought to do that well,” I remarked, “because you have lived so much
in the open air.”

I thought as I spoke that she had indeed the free, wild grace of
movement peculiar to the children of Nature.

“That’s what Sister said when she gave me the part,” Winifred assented.
“It is great fun being an Indian. I have to wear feathers on my head and
some paint on my face, and a beaded skirt and a blanket embroidered with
quills and things. Wouldn’t Barney and Moira stare if they saw me!”

And she laughed at the picture she conjured up of their amazement.

“Granny Meehan would stare too, were it possible for her to see you,” I
observed; “though that she could not do even if you stood before her.”

“Poor old Granny!” Winifred said softly. “I wish I could see her. But
there’s no use wishing.”

And she dismissed the subject with that curiously unchildlike composure
and self-control which I had often perceived in her.

“Winifred,” I finally asked, “do you remember your father at all?”

She looked startled, but answered:

“I suppose it was he who shut the door hard when the lady in yellow made
him angry.”

“Yes,” I said: “I suppose it was.”

“He was very dark,” Winifred went on, thoughtfully. “I think it was the
same one who took me away. He was dressed all in black and he looked
very sad. He took me by the hand and we went out of the house and
through some streets, and then he put me before him on a horse and rode
off. He was very kind and not at all angry that day.”

“They say he is living, Winifred my child,” I ventured. “Would you like
to see him again?”

“Oh, yes!” she cried; “though perhaps he would be like a stranger; it is
so very long ago.”

“Niall believes you will see him yet,” I continued; “so you ought to get
accustomed to the idea. I used to know him, and he was noble and good
and kind-hearted.”

“You never told me before that you knew him,” Winifred remarked, looking
at me curiously.

“And yet I did, and he was all that I have said,” I declared.

“But he does not care for me,” said Winifred suddenly, “or he would not
have gone away and left me.”

I was startled and at the same time touched by the deep sadness of her
tone.

“Perhaps he thought you were dead,” I suggested.

“Thought I was dead!” repeated Winifred, in surprise.

Then she burst into a peal of laughter.

“Winifred,” I cried, bending toward her, “think that–think anything
rather than that your father has forgotten you or does not care for
you.”

The tears came into her eyes, but she suddenly turned away from the
subject, as she usually did when deeply moved–a habit which she had in
common with her father.

“You never saw my classroom, did you?” she inquired.

I answered that I had not.

“Then I will ask if I may take you up to see it,” she said, darting away
for the desired permission.

We went up the great, broad stairs and along the shining corridor to a
room with a half glass door and a pair of broad, low windows. Within it
were rows of desks familiar to all convent girls, and a desk for the
teacher standing upon a raised platform. There was a small statue of the
Sacred Heart and one of the Blessed Virgin resting upon brackets, with
flowers before them; and a fine engraving or two of sacred subjects hung
with the maps upon the walls. An immense blackboard occupied one side of
the apartment. The room was empty as regarded occupants; and Winifred,
dancing across the floor to one of the desks which stood near the
window, cried:

“This is mine!”

I went and sat down on the chair, fastened securely to the floor, which
looked out upon the wintry landscape. At that moment a bird came
chirping and twittering about the window-sill, and cocking his bright
little eye as he looked in at us through the pane.

“He comes very often,” said Winifred, regarding the little brown object
with a kindly glance. “Sometimes I feed him with crumbs. He always
reminds me of Father Owen’s robin far away over the sea, and I wonder if
he will ever fly so far.”

I laughed at the idea.

“Perhaps he may go and take a message to that other bird,” I suggested.

“Not until the spring, anyway,” Winifred answered gravely. “But when I
see him out there on cold, stormy days I think how Father Owen said that
the robin did his work in storm or calm and tried to sing and be merry.”

“And I suppose you try to imitate him?” I put in.

“Yes,” she said, “I think I do; but I’m not always merry in the storm,
and my teacher tells me I’m too wayward and unstable: that I’m never two
days the same.”

I said nothing, and she went on:

“All my life people have told me that I’m wayward. I used to be called
Wayward Winifred. Perhaps it’s from living so much on the hills; for you
know they change often. Sometimes they’re beautiful, with the sun
shining like gold on their heads; and again they’re dark and
threatening.”

“Like Niall,” I added.

“Don’t say anything against Niall–O poor, poor Niall!” she interrupted,
almost vehemently.

“Well, that is not exactly against him. But he is rather variable,” I
declared. “But now you are in a place where everything is the same day
after day.”

“I found that hard at first,” Winifred said–“very hard; but now I don’t
mind so much. And I suppose if I stay long enough, I shall come to be
always the same too.”

Inwardly I doubted if such a result were possible, but I did not tell
her that. I asked her to show me what was in her desk, and she began to
take out, one by one, pencils, pens, colored crayons, exercise books, a
slate, a pile of lesson books. She had also her beads and her
prayer-book in there. The latter contained some very pretty lace
pictures, given her by her teachers as rewards of merit, on her birthday
or some other festal occasion. One of the pictures, however, she took
from between the leaves of the book and handed it to me.

“Do you remember the day Father Owen gave me that?” she asked.

“Was that the one he told you to get out of his breviary?” I inquired.

“Yes,” answered Winifred; “and it was on the day that you told me you
were going to bring me to America.”

“Yes, it was that memorable day.”

“I hated you then–oh, so much!” cried Winifred; “and I thought I should
always go on hating you, till we went into the church and Father Owen
began to play the organ.”

“Music has charms,” I quoted, “to soothe–well, I won’t say the savage
breast, but the angry feelings of a certain little girl. I am very glad,
though, that it had that result; for I should not have liked you to go
on hating me. That would never have done; and I’m afraid in that case we
should have had to give up our trip to America.”

She had a mischievous look about the eyes, which made me say:

“Perhaps you think that wouldn’t have been so great a misfortune, after
all, my Wayward Winifred!”

She laughed merrily, and replied:

“Don’t think me ungrateful. I’m glad in some ways I came. ‘Tis a
wonderful country this America; and I have seen such beautiful, strange
things.”

“Not the golden streets,” I observed; “nor the trees with gold leaves
nor the birds with jewelled wings.”

“No,” she agreed; “I haven’t seen anything like that, and I know those
stories weren’t true.”

She sighed, as if for the dream that had vanished, and added:

“But I have seen so many beautiful things, and I am learning a great
deal that I could never have learned with Granny and Niall.”

Her shrewd child’s wit had reached this conclusion unaided.

“And you have been so kind; I am grateful, and I do love you.”

She said this with such pretty fervor and yet with that sweet
condescension that always made me feel as if a little princess were
addressing me.

“You are getting to like the convent too?” I said.

“Oh, yes!” she cried; “it is so quiet and peaceful, like a church; and
every one speaks nicely, and we hear so many things about God and our
Blessed Mother and the saints. I am interested in a lot of things I
never knew before; and my teachers are different from any people I ever
knew before.”

I was well satisfied; and when we returned to the convent parlor I had a
talk with the Religious who presided there, while Winifred went off to
get her wraps–she having obtained permission to accompany me as far as
the gate. The Religious gave a very good account of Winifred. She
declared that her training had made her different from other girls, and
somewhat wayward and hard to control by ordinary means.

“At first,” she said, “the rule and the monotony of convent life seemed
most irksome to her, as well as the indoor existence, accustomed as she
had been in Ireland to spend nearly all her time in the open air.”

I nodded assent.

“Being quite undisciplined, too,” she went on, “she was inclined to a
certain waywardness of character, which it was hard to fight against.”

“I can understand,” I agreed.

“She was a very independent young lady when she first came, I assure
you,” the Religious said, smiling; “but, on the other hand, she is such
a sweet, bright temperament, so wholesome, so generous, so innately
refined–a thorough little lady. And she is so genuinely pious: nothing
sentimental or overstrained in her devotion. She has the faith and
fervor of her country. Altogether, her nature is one susceptible of the
highest training. Her very faults are lovable.”

“I am so glad to hear you say all this!” I declared cordially; “for it
fits in so well with the impression I had formed of her; and, though I
met her as a stranger last summer, I have now the best of reasons for
feeling a particular interest in her.”

“Her intelligence is quite remarkable,” went on the Religious. “Her mind
is in some directions far in advance of her years, and she has really a
fair share of education.”

“You see she had for her teacher,” I observed, “an eccentric but really
learned kinsman.”

“That accounts for it! And she has a good voice. Our music teachers are
quite enthusiastic about it.”

“She has a voice of uncommon sweetness and power,” I assented. “I heard
her singing on the Irish hills. Altogether, I hope the best from her
stay with you.”




We were here interrupted by Winifred herself, who appeared in her hat
and coat. She made a graceful curtsy to the teacher, and together we
went out arm in arm, walking over the crisp snow which had fallen over
night and which sparkled in the sunlight; and looking away into the
distance, where the afternoon was beginning to darken and the gray sky
to take on a warmer glow. When we reached the gate we stood still a few
minutes, Winifred looking wistfully out, as though she would fain have
gone with me.

“It will be study hour when I get back,” she told me; “and we have a lot
of hard things for to-morrow. Did you find globes hard when you were at
school?”

“Indeed I did,” I said, remembering my own bewildered flounderings about
in that particular branch of study.

“Well, we have them, and ancient history and algebra–oh, that awful
algebra!–to-morrow. So I think I must be going.”

“Good-by!” I said; “and, Winifred, don’t forget to say a prayer
sometimes for your father, that you may see him again in this world, and
both be happy together.”

“I won’t forget!” Winifred promised. “I always pray for my mother, who
is dead.”

“That is right, dear; but you must remember the living as well. And now
good-by again!”

“I am going to run all the way back,” she announced.

“Very well; I will stand and watch you. Now for the run! Let us see how
quick you can get up the avenue.”

She was off like a deer darting to cover; and it reminded me of the time
when I had seen her running amongst the hills, springing lightly from
peak to peak and almost horrifying me by her reckless movements.

“I should like her to have had a few years at the convent,” I thought;
“the refined atmosphere there would be just what she needs to tone down
her high spirits and give her the touches she requires. But I suppose
when Niall hears all he will be too impatient for the reunion with those
he loves to wait. Besides, it would be unjust to Roderick. I must
explain everything to him as soon as I get Niall’s permission.”

I pondered thus all the way to town, and wondered how soon I could hear
from Ireland, and how I should pass the intervening time till my letters
arrived. But in New York time flies, and the days seem all too short for
the multitude of affairs; so that week followed week and ran into months
before I realized that my letters remained unanswered.