THE CAVE IN THE MOUNTAINS

The time fixed for our departure was drawing all too near; for the
summer had been a delightful one, with much of fine weather and almost
constant sunshine–rare in that land where Nature’s tear is always very
near her smile. I had visited the Devil’s Glen, with its wondrous falls,
its turbulent streams, its mountain heights, reached by a path of
tangled bloom. I had seen the “sweet Vale of Avoca” and Avonmore, and
Glendalough, with its seven ruined churches; and St. Kevin’s Bed, and
all the other delights of Wicklow, the garden of Ireland.

On most of these expeditions I had been accompanied by Winifred, with
Barney and Moira. If we were driving, Barney acted as driver and guide
at once; if we were on foot, he carried the luncheon basket. Very often
we set out when the dew was still on the grass and the morning-star had
scarcely faded from the sky.

But there was one more spot to be visited, and this time Barney and
Moira were not to be of the party. Winifred had persuaded Niall to take
us to the Phoul-a-Phooka, and show us there a mysterious cavern in which
he kept hidden his treasures. I looked forward to this visit with a
curious blending of fear and curiosity. Niall was so variable in his
moods, and Father Owen agreed with me in thinking that at times his mind
was unsettled and his temper dangerous. Still, I determined to take the
risk.

One warm day in July Winifred and I set out in company with Niall–not,
indeed, that he gave us much of his society. When we were in the car he
drove in gloomy silence; when we were afoot he walked on ahead, wrapped
in his cloak, with an air of gloomy preoccupation, his sugar-loaf hat
serving as a sign-post which we were to follow.

When we came up at last to this celebrated spot, my breath was fairly
taken away by its wild and mournful grandeur. Waterfall after waterfall
came down from a height of two hundred feet, over great, rocky
precipices, being spanned by a single arched bridge of Gothic design. On
one side of the falls are tasteful grounds, with shaded walks and seats
for the convenience of visitors; on the other, all is wild and
barren–rock rising above rock, crag above crag, in a morose solitude.

It was toward this solitude that Niall led us, the noise of the
waterfalls completely drowning our voices. We strode on by devious
paths, turning more and more away from the water and upward by a steep
ascent, till we found ourselves in surroundings shunned by the common
folk, and wild, gloomy and forbidding enough to justify all that popular
superstition said of this region. Once we paused to take breath, and I
looked down from an eminence on the waters rushing madly to the tranquil
glen below; and then I turned my gaze from the Gothic bridge, the work
of man, to the mountain crag, the work of the Creator.

Suddenly Niall turned an abrupt angle, Winifred and I creeping after
him. I was full of fear; but Winifred was fearless and smiling, holding
my hand and encouraging me as though I had been a child. We stopped
before a tangled mass of vines and brushwood. Niall pushed them aside,
disclosing a small, dark entrance in the rocks, through which he
passed, signing for us to follow him. This we did, Winifred whispering:

“It’s the cavern. I was here once before–that time I told you I was
going to the Phoul-a-Phooka.”

We bent our heads as we saw Niall do, for the entrance was very low; and
we advanced some paces along a kind of passageway cut in the rock either
by the hand of Nature or by some long-forgotten outlaw of the hills. A
surprise awaited us, such as is common enough in underground places; for
we emerged all at once from the dark into a large and tolerably
well-lighted apartment. The rugged walls of rock, moss-covered in
places, were dry; the floor was neatly boarded over, and a fire was
ready for lighting in a corner. Above it, a cranny in the wall permitted
the smoke to escape. In a little alcove apart from the principal cave
were a bed, a few chairs, and a table.

“Niall lives here for weeks at a time,” explained Winifred.

Niall had set a match to the fire; for, warm as the weather was outside,
there was a chilliness within as of a vault. Presently the sods blazed
up, the flames leaping and glowing about the stooping figure of the old
man, who seemed like some strange magician. We seated ourselves on the
rough, deal chairs, near a table of similar material that occupied the
middle of the cave; and Niall opened a curiously contrived cupboard and
brought forth some plates and cups and saucers. Winifred, opening our
luncheon basket, took out and spread upon the table its simple
contents–cold meat, home-made bread, a pat of fresh butter, and a jar
of apple jelly, which the landlord had specially recommended.

Niall then abruptly left the cavern, and returned in a few minutes with
a pitcher of goat’s milk; but how or where he had obtained it he did not
explain.

“I think he keeps some goats out there on the rocks,” said Winifred in
a low voice to me, “so that he can drink the milk when he is living
here.”

Our walk had given us an appetite; the coolness of the place, despite
the fire, was refreshing. Winifred was in high spirits, making a jest of
everything and thoroughly enjoying the simple repast. I, forgetting my
late fears, was also disposed to be merry. Niall alone maintained a
moody silence, eating but little, and drinking only sparingly of the
goat’s milk. When the meal was over, Winifred fetched some water from a
mountain spring, and we washed the dishes in a rude earthen vessel and
restored them to their places in the cupboard built against the rock.
When this was done, Niall said abruptly:

“I will show you now what you have come here to see–the treasure which
the earth has yielded up to me. Some of these things are from the tombs
of kings or warriors; some buried at the time, perhaps, of the Danish
invasion. They are all, I believe, of value, greater or less.”

When he had thus spoken he began to creep around the cavern with a
furtive, stealthy movement, examining every chink and cranny, as though
unseen eyes were watching him. At last he approached a certain corner,
withdrawing again, and looking all around him with eager, troubled eyes.
Then he touched what seemed to be a secret spring, and before us was
another dark passage.

This dark passage had been made by some former occupant of the cave, who
stood, perhaps, in danger of his life. We entered, and at the end of it
was a second and much smaller cavern, the darkness of which was relieved
by the gleam of shining metal. I stood still and drew my breath hard.
Was I dreaming, or had I gone back to the world of the Arabian Nights?
This could not be Ireland, and Niall a prosaic, end-of-the-century
Irishman! He must surely be a magician of old–one of the genii sprung
from Aladdin’s lamp; and the child beside him, in her delicate, aerial
loveliness, some fairy showing the treasures of the earth to mortal
eyes.

Niall, putting aside his gloom, suddenly brightened into enthusiasm,
which lighted up his face as with the fire of genius. He told us of the
old warriors, chiefs and kings, or of the beautiful ladies in shining
satin robes, who had worn these costly ornaments–the fibulæ or
brooches, the breastplates of thin burnished gold, the crowns, the
bracelets, the collars, some studded with precious gems. And there were
shining heaps of gold besides, fresh from the mint. These Niall had
obtained in exchange for the ore which he had dug up from the bed of
streams and also for gold still in the lump.

The time seemed to pass as in a dream. We were never tired listening,
Niall of dwelling upon the glories of his treasure-house. The old man
had spent hours and days polishing those articles with chemicals, with
whose use he was well acquainted, and some of which gave out a strange,
pungent odor; for it had been no small labor to clean away the rust
perhaps of ages.

“Every year I part with some of them,” Niall said mournfully, rather as
one who spoke to himself than to us. “And it is hard, hard; but I add a
little each time to the pile of coin. When the day comes I shall sell
them all–all!”

He motioned us to go out again into the first cavern; and, touching the
spring, he closed away the treasures and sank once more into a listless
mood, seated at the table, his head buried in his hands. Winifred, who
had listened with open-mouthed delight to Niall’s tales of the past,
and had been as much interested in seeing the treasures as though she
saw them for the first time, now sat thoughtfully beside me, gazing into
the fire. Presently she grew tired of inaction, and, springing to her
feet, began to dance about the cavern–a graceful, charming figure in
that rocky setting. And as she danced she chanted a weird song in the
Irish tongue, which Niall had taught her.

Gradually Niall raised his head. The air or the words of the song seemed
to have a strange effect upon him–to rouse him, as it were, from his
lethargy. He fixed his eyes upon Winifred, watching her every movement
with a fierce eagerness. Then his eyes turned upon me, and there was the
fire almost of insanity lighting them. As he gazed he rose from his
chair, coming toward me with a slow, gliding step, while I sat paralyzed
with terror.

“Why should I not kill you,” he said, in a deep, low tone, like the
growling of some mountain torrent, “and bury you here in the hills? You
have brought the curse upon me. Like the carrion bird, your coming has
heralded evil. My heart is burning within me because of the sorrow that
consumes it. You have charmed the child from me to take her away to the
unknown land.”

“But remember,” I managed to say, “that it is with your consent, and
that I have promised to bring her back again when you will.”

“Promised!” he repeated fiercely. “As if you could control
events–govern the wilful mind of a child and force her to remember!”

There was a deadly calmness in his voice, more fearful than the wildest
outburst of anger; and I trembled so violently that I could almost hear
my teeth chattering.

“Ha!” he cried, “you are afraid of me. I can see you tremble. And you
may well; for Niall, in his wrath, is terrible as the mountain torrent
in its course.”

I fixed my eyes upon him as upon a wild beast whose fury I was striving
to tame. Every moment I feared that he might spring upon me, when the
voice of Winifred suddenly broke the spell. It was evident she had not
at first perceived what was going on.

“Niall!” she said imperiously. “What are you saying to the lady? Why are
you trying to frighten her?”

She interposed her slender figure between us as she spoke.

Niall’s eyes sought the ground in a crestfallen manner, and he muttered:

“Forgive me, my little lady!”

“I won’t forgive you if you act like that any more, Niall!” she
declared. “You know how the old chieftains and kings you are always
talking about treated their guests. And isn’t the lady your guest here
in your own cavern, Niall?”

Niall murmured:

“I forgot, I forgot! ‘Tis all my poor head. At times I can think only of
one thing–that she is taking you away.”

“And ’tis you who want me to go for my own good,” Winifred said gravely.

Niall turned away with a groan.




“I am willing to go,” Winifred went on, “because Father Owen said I
should. He knows what is best. He told me it was God sent the lady
here.”

Niall broke into an uncontrollable fury, which caused even Winifred to
step back.

“What care I for Father Owen or the lady?” he exclaimed.

Her face was pale; I think it was the first time she had ever been
afraid of Niall. But she faced the old man bravely; though his face,
working with passion, his streaming hair and huge frame made him look
like a veritable Cyclops.

“Be still, Niall,” she cried, “or the lady and I will go away out of
your cave this minute, and be very sorry that we came here.”

She put her small hand on his arm, and the touch seemed to calm him.

“Forgive me!” he murmured once more, in the helpless, bewildered tone of
a little child; and, sinking again into one of the chairs near the
table, he buried his face in his hands and so remained for some moments.
We did not disturb him by so much as a word; but I, relieved somewhat
from my late suspense, though dreading a new access of fury, and eager
to be gone, let my eyes rove round that singular place. The rugged face
of the rock above our heads and all around was lit by the crackling
flames of the turf which burned so brightly. I was startled from my
thoughts by the voice of Niall; but this time it was soft and low as
that of Winifred herself. Suddenly rising from his chair, he made me a
low bow and offered a humble apology for his late rudeness. After that
he was the same amiable and courteous gentleman he so often appeared,
and as pleasant as possible, talking a great deal and telling us many
interesting things.

“In this cave,” he said, “during the penal times more than one priest
took refuge. Mass was said here, and the people flocked from far and
near to attend it. Here in the troubles of ’98 it is said that the
patriot O’Byrne took refuge. This may be the precise cavern in which he
dwelt, or it may not; but it gives the place an interest–a sad
interest.”

He paused and looked around him for an instant.

“I shall love this cave better than ever now,” said Winifred; “and I
shall often think of it when I am far away in the New World–”

Her voice broke a little.

“Think of it, my child!” cried Niall. “Oh, _do_ think of it when you are
far beyond the ocean! Think of whatever will make you love Ireland and
make you remember.”

The tears coursed down his cheeks and there was anguish in his voice.

“Don’t cry, Niall!” said Winifred. “I shall always remember you and your
cave and dear old Granny and Wicklow and Ireland.”

She said the words as solemnly as if they were a vow; and they had a
weird sound there in that hole in the rocks which had sheltered many a
noble and saintly soul.

“There spoke my own lady!” cried Niall, triumphantly.

“Nothing shall ever make me forget,” added Winifred.

“I, for my part,” I broke in, “shall do my best to help you to remember;
and so I solemnly promise here on this holy ground, where Mass has been
said and where martyrs have trod.”

It was near evening when we left that wonderful spot, and, deafened once
more by the noise of the Phoul-a-Phooka, retraced our steps in silence.