LETTERS AT LAST

The letter I had opened was, I knew, from Niall. I remembered the
strange, crabbed characters, almost resembling Arabic, in which he had
written my letter of instruction.

“The hills of Wicklow,” he began, “are streaming with sunlight. Their
spurs are all golden, and the streams are rushing in great gladness, for
they are full of joy. They have been freed from the bondage of winter.

“There is joy in the hills. It is sounding in my ears and in my heart.
Words I dare not speak, daughter of the stranger! I can not put on paper
the thoughts that are burning in my brain. You have found him, the
beloved wanderer; and you have discovered that his heart has never
wandered from us. I knew before now that he was not to blame; and of
that I shall tell you some day, but not now.

“Had I wings, I would fly to Roderick and to my beautiful little lady. I
love him, I love her. My heart has been seared by her absence. Until
your letter came, the hills spoke a strange, new language, and I have
heard no human speech. When your letter reached the village, I was up at
my cabin in the hills, unconscious of good or evil, burning with fever.
The good Samaritan found me out; who he is you can guess. It was long,
long before my senses came back; and he would not read me your letter
until I had grown strong. When I heard its contents, I feared even then
that my brain would turn. For two days I roamed the mountains. I fled
to my cavern of the Phoul-a-Phooka for greater solitude. I could not
speak of my joy–I dared not think of it.

“And now, O daughter of the stranger, heaven-sent from that land afar!
bring her back to my heart, lest it break with the joy of this
knowledge, and with sorrow that the sea still divides me from her, and
that other equally beloved. Oh, what matters education now! Let the
beautiful grow as the flowers grow, as the trees shoot up, clothed in
beauty.

“Come now in all haste; and tell Roderick that on my knees I implore him
to come too, that I may reveal all. Bid him hasten to Niall, the
forlorn.”

He broke off abruptly, with some words in Irish, which, of course, I did
not understand. My own head was swimming; a great joy surged up in my
heart, and I could almost have echoed Niall’s wild rhapsody. When should
I see poor Roderick and tell him–what? I had not yet made up my mind as
to how I should fulfil that delightful task. However, I would write to
him that very day and bid him come to hear the glad news.

I took up the other letter, which was, I doubted not, from Father Owen.
Of course he could add nothing to my great happiness; still, it would be
of the deepest interest to hear every detail relating to this matter of
paramount importance. The letter was just as characteristic as Niall’s
had been; and I seemed to see the priest’s genial face lighted up with
pleasure, as he wrote, and to hear his kindly voice.

“Laus Deo!” began the letter. “What words of joy or praise can I find to
express my own sentiments and those of the faithful hearts whose long
years of waiting have been at last rewarded! I took your letter to Mrs.
Meehan, and I had to use diplomacy–though that was a lost art with me,
so simple are my people and my duties–for fear the shock might be too
great. But I don’t think joy ever kills. I wish you could have seen her
face–so tranquil, so trusting, illumined with the light of happiness.
You can imagine the outburst of her praise rising up to the Creator,
clear and strong as a lark’s at morning. Barney and Moira were only
restrained by my presence from cutting capers, and at last I said to
them: ‘Go out there now, Barney, my man, and you too, Moira, my colleen,
and dance a jig in the courtyard; for I am pretty sure your legs won’t
keep still much longer.’

“And now of poor Niall! When your letter came I went in search of him.
No one had seen him for a good while, and it was supposed he had gone
off on some of his wanderings. None of the people would venture near his
cabin, so I took my stick in my hand, and went there with the letter. I
found the poor fellow in a sad plight–alone, burning with fever,
delirious, and going over all kinds of queer scenes in his raving: now
crying for ‘gold, gold, gold!’ or giving heart-piercing cries for
Winifred. Again, he would be back in the past, with Roderick, a boy, at
his side.

“Well, there was no one to take care of the creature; and, as it fitted
in with my day’s work, I took care of him myself. His gratitude, when he
came to consciousness, was touching; and yet I had only followed the
plainest dictates of humanity. When I thought my patient was strong
enough, I read the letter to him. Bless my soul! it was like a
whirlwind. He nearly took the breath out of me, rushing from the cabin
in a kind of madness, and leaving me sitting there staring at the door
by which he had gone. I did not see him for more than a week, and I
assure you I was anxious. I was afraid he had lost his mind through
excess of joy.

“To make a long story short, when he did come back again I got hold of
him entirely. Joy seems to have changed his nature as sunshine will
purify a noisome spot. He is as gentle and tractable as a lamb; and
better than all, his old faith and piety have come back to him. He goes
to Mass and the sacraments. The light of heaven seemed to flow in on him
with your letter. His sorrow for the past was like that of a child. I
told him not to be disturbed about it, but just go on asking for mercy,
mercy–only that and nothing more. ‘For,’ said I to him, ‘my poor
fellow, there’s the eye of God looking down; and as it sees the noxious
weed and the fairest flower, so it beholds our sins and our waywardness
as well as our virtues. If these weeds of sin are plucked, the flowers
of our virtues are just as fair in His sight.’

“But, O dear lady, how the old man sits and longs for the hour of
reunion! He is out on the hills when their spurs are burnished gold, at
the sunset hour; and he is there at the dawn waiting for the first beam
to light up the Glen of the Dargle; he is out in the moonlight watching
it making strange shapes out of the trees; and all the time with that
one thought in his mind. He looks for gold no more, because he says his
love of it was sinful; and the only treasures he seeks for now are the
faces of his loved ones. Do not keep him long waiting, I entreat.

“Tell my pet, Winifred, the robin is out there now, busy as ever; and
just bursting his breast with the joy of coming spring. I am proud and
glad to hear of her success at the convent and sorry she has to leave it
so soon. Say a prayer sometimes for the old priest in far-off Ireland,
who soon will be slipping away to his rest–but not, he hopes, till he
lays eyes on you again, and thanks you for the happiness you have
brought to him and to the little ones of his flock.”

I sat there for some time going over these letters, alternately, and
delighting in the pictures which their eloquent language evoked. To one
thing I made up my mind; I should go back to Ireland and be present at
the joyful meeting. Indeed, my eye brightened, my cheek glowed at the
thought of seeing again those lovely scenes, and of the pleasant reunion
of hearts at which I was to be present. But it was my turn to write a
letter, or at least a very brief note, asking Roderick to come to me as
soon as possible. That being Saturday, I thought I should have to wait
till Monday for his visit.

Sunday passed in a feverish state of agitation. I was going out to
supper in the evening, at the very same house where I had before met
Roderick, but it was unlikely he would be there again. What was my
surprise to see his tall figure standing near the fire talking to our
hostess! He saluted me gravely. I thought he looked thin and worn; but
at first he did not come near me: and I feared he had resolved to avoid
me. As we were all making a move for supper, I managed to whisper:

“I wrote you a note yesterday. Please promise to comply with the request
I make you in it.”

He turned sharply:

“You wrote to me?” he queried.

“Yes,” I answered.

“May I ask about what?”

Though the words were curt, Roderick’s tone was genial and his face
smiling.

“Merely asking you to come to see me to-morrow evening–but your partner
is waiting, you must go.”

He turned to the young girl beside him, with an apology for his
momentary inattention. If his mind was inclined to wander from her to
the subject of my approaching communication, he was too courteous and
too accomplished a man of the world to let her perceive it. I was almost
sorry I had spoken, lest it should spoil his supper. Several times I saw
him looking at me; but I only smiled and went on talking to my partner,
a brilliant lawyer with a great reputation for wit. Very soon after
supper Roderick came over to me, with his usual almost boyish eagerness.

“What do you want to say to me?” he demanded, smiling yet imperious.

“How do you know I want to say anything?” I retorted, smiling back.

“Of course I know, and I am going to hear what it is, too!” he cried,
seating himself beside me.

“Now, Roderick,” I said, “if I were a charming young lady, such as that
one you have just left, I could never resist that face and that voice.
But as matters are, you’ll just have to wait till I make up my mind to
tell you; for spectacled eyes see without glamor, and gray hairs give us
wisdom.”

He laughed and his face took on a brighter look. I fancy that he knew by
my tone I had good news to tell.

“I won’t go to see you on Monday night,” he declared, “unless you give
me a hint.”

“Well, I will give you a hint, and then you needn’t come to see me.”

“That is unkind.”

“No; it would only be giving you trouble for nothing. The substance of
what I have to say to you is this: that you must take a trip to Ireland
very soon.”

“Alone?”




“Yes, alone.”

“And when I get there?”

“You’ll be glad you went.”

He pondered deeply, for some moments.

“Isn’t this very like a fool’s errand?” he inquired.

“Which is the fool, he who goes or she who sends?” I replied,
mischievously.

“Can you ask?” he laughed. “A man is nearly always a fool when he does a
woman’s errand.”

“But, seriously, you will go?”

He thought a little longer.

“I will,” he answered, “if you will only promise me one thing.”

“What is that?”

“That there will be an end of all this mystification.”

“I promise you that, most solemnly,” I answered. “Once on Irish soil,
you shall know everything.”

“Tell me now,” he said, with sudden eagerness, “how is Winifred,
asthore?”

There was a world of feeling in his voice, though he came out with the
epithet laughingly.

“Well and happy,” I assured him.

“Will you give her something from me?”

“I’m not so sure,” I said, jestingly; “for you’ve quite won her heart
already. She talks of nothing but the ‘dark gentleman.'”

A glow of pleasure lit up his face.

“And now, what is it you want me to give her?”

He took a small box from his waistcoat pocket. It was the prettiest
little ring, with a green stone in the center.

“The color of hope–the color of Ireland,” Roderick observed.

“A good omen,” I said, looking at the gem, where it lay sparkling in the
wadding.

“You will give that to Winifred from her unknown friend,” Roderick
said.

“She will be delighted–though, you know, of course, she will not be
allowed to wear it in the convent.”

“Ah, she is in a convent!” he exclaimed. “But in any case, let her keep
it as a reminder of me.”

I thought as I watched him that if Winifred so closely resembled her
dead mother, she was also like her father. His face was as mobile and
expressive as hers, allowing always for the mask which the years are
sure to put over every human countenance.

“You fancy there is a resemblance in this girl to your dead wife?”

“I know there is a resemblance to Winifred’s dead mother,” he answered.

I was silent though I had little reason for concealment henceforth.

“How cruel you have been all this time,” he exclaimed, as he watched me;
“I think it comes natural to your sex.”

“Don’t revile our sex for the faults of your own,” I answered. “But tell
me more about your dead wife.”

His face changed and softened. Then a look came over it–a look of
tender remembrance, which did him credit.

“She was very beautiful,” he began, “at least I thought so. I met her
when she was only fifteen. She was the image of what Winifred is now,
only her beauty was more pronounced, and she had a haughtier air. I
never forgot her from that moment. When she was eighteen, we were
married. She was only twenty-four when she died, but I remember her
still as vividly–”

He stopped, as though the subject were too painful, and then resumed,
half dreamily:

“I am going to tell you now what will lend an added value to that
little trinket I have given you for Winifred.” He paused again, and drew
a deep breath, looking at me hard. “It belonged to–to my wife, when she
was a child of Winifred’s age. Winifred will prize it, because it
was–her mother’s.”

I stood up, and Roderick, rising also, confronted me.

“Can you deny it?” he asked defiantly.

I was silent.

“Pray what is the object of further secrecy?” he pleaded. “Tell me, is
not Winifred my child, the child of my dead wife?”

I bowed my head in assent. Concealment was neither useful nor desirable
any longer.

The look of triumph, of exaltation, of joy, which swept over his face
was good to see.

“But you will wait?” I pleaded, in my return. “You will go to Ireland,
as agreed, and your child shall be all your own entirely and forever?”

“I will wait,” he answered quietly, “though it is hard.”

And then we shook hands and parted. I felt that I must hurry away: for I
could not go on talking of commonplace subjects, either to Roderick or
to any of the others. As I took leave of our hostess she said,
laughingly:

“You and Mr. O’Byrne were quite melodramatic, standing over there a few
moments ago.”

I laughed, but I did not give her any information. When I got home I
wrote to Niall, telling him that in a month or two at furthest I would
bring Winifred back, but that I wanted to show her a little of the
American continent before taking her home. On my next visit to the
convent, I did not say a word to the child–I was afraid it would
unsettle her for her school-work, but I informed her teachers that it
would be necessary to withdraw her before the expiration of the term.
After the trip which I intended to take with her to Niagara and a few
other points of interest, I determined to cross the ocean once more and
bring Winifred safely back to Niall. I should let Roderick sail by the
Cunard line, while we would take passage by the White Star line, so that
our arrival would be almost simultaneous.

I presented Winifred with her ring, though at the time I did not tell
her it had been her mother’s. She was more than delighted, as I had
foreseen, and put it at once upon her finger. She was vexed, and
indulged in one of her childish outbursts of petulance, when I explained
to her that wearing it was against the rules. She had to be content with
keeping it where she could look at it, very often. She sent a very
pretty message to Roderick.

“Tell him,” she said, “I remember him when the birds sing, when the
organ plays, when the sun shines–whenever there is happiness in my
heart.”

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