THE OLD CASTLE

In another instant the figure of the schoolmaster had vanished from the
window; and Winifred entered, full of life and youthful spirits,
recounting the details of her proposed ramble that evening with Moira
and Barney, away to the bog for turf sods.

“Can’t you leave it to themselves, Miss Winifred asthore?” said Granny.
“Gatherin’ peat is no work for you.”

“What are these arms for?” cried Winifred, holding out a pair of strong
young arms, which suggested health and strength in their every movement.
“Am I not good for something as well as Barney and Moira?” Suddenly she
changed her tone, running over and laying her soft young cheek against
the wrinkled one of her nurse. “Think, Granny,” she said, “what the bog
will be like with the moon shining down upon it, making all sorts of
ghostly shadows; so that after a while we shall just run for our lives;
and Barney will whip up his roan horse and bring us home, shivering for
fear of ghosts and fairies.”

“Winifred,” I observed, “you are far too fanciful for this nineteenth
century. You will have to come away to America and get rid of all these
unreal ideas.”

Her face clouded at the mention of America, and she rose from her pretty
attitude beside Mrs. Meehan, straight and tall as a willow.

“I told you I was going to America,” she said coldly; “but I suppose
people have fancies out there just as well as we have, only of a
different kind.”

There was a touch of shrewdness in this remark which amused me.

“Well, I suppose you’re right,” I said. “But such things should be
fought against everywhere–or, at least, kept in their proper place.”

“Fought against!” cried Winifred, with sudden warmth. “And what would
the world be without fancies? Just as dull as the bog without the moon.”

I felt that in a measure she was right, but I said nothing; and she
presently added, in her ordinary tone:

“I think we had better go now to look at the castle. Another day I might
not be able to show it to you.”

I rose at once to accompany her; and then she added, with a
half-petulant, half-playful air:

“I suppose you will only care to see the bare walls. And that won’t be
much; for it’s the fancies that give them beauty.”

“Forgive me, Winifred!” I said. “And show me the old walls with your own
light upon them–clothed with the tapestry of your own fancy.”

Her face brightened and she regarded me with a winsome smile, saying:

“Come, then, and I’ll tell you everything; and you may think what you
like and say what you like. I won’t get cross any more. And if you talk
about what you do in America, I will just say in my own mind: ‘Oh, I
suppose they have the bog without the moonlight out there; and if they
are satisfied, it doesn’t matter!'”

“She is indeed too old for her years,” I thought; “but so charming
withal, who could help loving her? Her very wilfulness and what might
seem like rudeness in another are redeemed by her voice and manner.”

“What if I were to go in Barney’s cart and see the bog by moonlight?” I
ventured to suggest.

Winifred reflected.

“Barney would not object, I think,” she decided. “But it may be best to
ask him. He might feel abashed with you; and I know Moira would not
speak a word, but just hold down her head and kick her heels together.”

“In short, I should be a wet blanket,” I went on.

“_I_ should like to have you with us,” Winifred said. “And, after all,
the others might not mind much; so perhaps you had better come.”

I laughed at the form of her invitation, but said that I would go.

“Very well,” said Winifred; “that is settled. And here we are in the
castle.”

By this time we had passed through a long stone passage similar to that
by which I had entered the room where we had left Granny Meehan; and
from that time my interest grew and grew. Some parts of the castle were
quite ruinous, so that we dared not enter, and only gazed in silence
into gloomy, vault-like rooms, from which the floors were crumbling
away. Here owls and bats held nightly revel; and Winifred told me, with
bated breath, that there walked ladies of the olden time at midnight or
knights with clanking armor. Again we came to halls into which streamed
the light of heaven from ruinous roofs.

“We have games of hide-and-seek in some of these rooms,” said Winifred,
laughing. “Oh, you ought to see Moira and me tearing about here!”

We mounted at last to the donjon and looked down upon the moat, which
was grass-grown; and upon the sally-ports in the walls and the
battlements, time-stained and covered in places with ivy, the growth of
centuries.

“They used to give battle in those days,” said Winifred. “Wasn’t it fine
to mount the flag on this tower and say to invaders that you would die
before you gave up the castle?” Her cheek glowed, and she tossed back
the curls which were tumbling about her forehead. “And then the trumpets
would be sounding down below, and the horses of the knights neighing,
their lances shining, their banners waving. Oh, I wish I had lived at
that time!”

Her words had called up a vivid picture from the past, and for a moment
I stood and let my eyes wander out far over the hills. But Winifred
called to me, and, taking my hand, led me down the winding stairs again.
After that we went in and out of a succession of apartments, bewildering
in their number and size; all bare, lofty, stone-walled and stone-paved.
Here and there a faded tapestry still lingered, or a banner fluttered in
the breeze which stole in through many a crack and cranny. At each pause
which we made my guide was able to tell me some entrancing story, some
bit of legendary lore which had all the charm of reality.

“If you know about the Red Branch Knights,” said Winifred, “you must
have heard of Cuchullin.”

“He is the Lancelot of Irish romance,” I assented.

“Well, I don’t know anything about Lancelot,” replied Winifred.

“It doesn’t matter for the moment,” I said. “Lancelot was a knight of
great valor, always doing noble deeds.”

“So was Cuchullin!” cried Winifred, eagerly. “Oh, I could tell you
wonderful things he did, even as a boy!”

“Tell me one, at any rate,” I pleaded.

“Well, I will tell you how he got his name,” she began. “He went to the
house of the smith who was giving a feast for the great King Conor
(Conor was the boy’s uncle). The smith had let out a great hound, for
the King forgot to tell him that Cuchullin was coming. The boy came and
gave battle to the hound and slew him. When the smith found out that his
hound was dead he grieved very much, because the dog had tended his
flocks and herds. The boy then offered to watch the cattle and guard
them till a hound of equal strength could be found. And because of that
he was called Cu-Culann, or the dog of the smith. He had to fight both
dogs and men in defence of the cattle. But, then, he was a very brave
boy; and, oh, it is a fine thing to have courage!”

“And to use it well as that boy did,” I put in. “I suppose he grew up to
be as good and brave a man.”

“Yes, he was a very famous knight. He gained many victories and
protected the poor and weak.”

I smiled as I watched her fine, mobile face alight with the admiration
she felt for that knight of the far-off past.

In the middle of a great room which we entered Winifred stopped
abruptly; and when she spoke it was with awe in her voice.

“In this room,” she observed, “was quartered for almost a whole winter
the great Finn. Do you know who Finn was?”

“Perhaps he is the same as the Fingal of the Scotch,” I replied.

“Perhaps so,” said Winifred, indifferently; “but I don’t know anything
about Fingal. This Finn founded an order called the Fianna Eirrinn. He
married Grania, ‘the golden-haired, the fleet and young’ daughter of
King Connae, who lived on the Hill of Tara.”

It was quaint to hear Winifred telling these legends or bits of ancient
history in exactly the same language in which some older person had told
them to her. I asked her to explain what kind of an order it was that
this legendary hero had founded; and she told me it was a military order
of knights who had sworn to defend the kingdom against foreign foes. She
added that Finn possessed the gifts of poetry, of healing, and of
second-sight–the latter from a fairy into whose palace he had succeeded
in thrusting one hand.

“It is really wonderful how you can remember all these old stories!”




“Niall has been telling them to me ever since I was a little child,”
replied Winifred; “and I remember a great many more. In that hall
downstairs which you see from this gallery, the harper sang to a great
company about the mines in these hills and the golden treasures buried
in the earth–”

She stopped abruptly, as if frightened, looking at me intently. But at
the time her words conveyed very little to my mind except the poetic
idea.

“In that same great hall down there,” said Winifred, “used to be set up
‘the caldron of hospitality.’ Every one that came was fed. Princes,
nobles, minstrels, servants, pilgrims, beggars–each had a place at the
big tables which used to be there.” She paused and looked down, as if
she could see the brilliant scene before her. “In the middle of the room
there,” she cried, “the chief Conal was warned by the spirit who watches
over the castle that he was to die that day. He was very strong and
brave and beautiful, and he didn’t fear death a bit. He went to meet it;
and in a battle, beside King Brian, he was killed by a Dane.”

We passed on, pausing at a great chamber, with windows ivy-hung, giving
out upon that exquisite scenery which has made famous the name of
Wicklow. I looked out over the hills, whence a purple mist was lifting,
leaving them illumined with a golden haze.

“I like the legend of St. Bridget,” Winifred remarked.

“Tell it to me,” I said.

“I suppose in America you believe in saints?” said Winifred, with such a
look of drollery that I burst out laughing.

“All good Catholics do that,” I said, “even if they are Americans.”

“Of course this is a legend,” Winifred went on; “and Father Owen–my
dear Father Owen–told me that not all the legends told of the saints
are true; but I think this one is.”

“I should like to hear it,” I repeated.

“Once St. Bridget was on a journey with some companions, and stopped to
ask hospitality of the chief. He was away with his harper, for in old
times every great person had a harper. But the chief’s sons were at
home, and they brought in their guests to the hall and spread out a
banquet for them. While they were at table, St. Bridget looked up at the
harps and asked the sons to give her some music. They replied: ‘Alas!
honored lady, our father is away with our harper, and neither my brother
nor myself has skill in music. But if you will bless our fingers we will
try to please you.’ Bridget then touched their fingers with the tips of
her own, and when the brothers sat down to the harps they played such
music as was never heard. All at once the old chief came in and he stood
spellbound at the exquisite music which his sons were bringing from the
harp strings. He wondered very much, for they had never played before.
But when he saw St. Bridget he understood it all.”

“This old castle is full of beautiful legends,” I observed.

“Yes,” said Winifred. “Niall says he isn’t sure that all these things
happened in this castle. He says, perhaps the minstrels or some one
collected them from a good many castles and pretended that they all
happened here. There are such a lot more I could tell you if there was
time, but it is getting dark.”

It was true; the dusk was creeping over the hills and down into the
valleys, like some spirit of peace, causing all toil to cease and
bidding all nature rest.

“If you will promise–oh, promise faithfully!–not to say a word to any
one nor to ask too many questions, I will show you something,” said
Winifred suddenly.

“I suppose I must promise,” I said.

And then she led me into a wing of the house which was in astonishingly
good repair.

“The rooms here are all furnished,” she remarked casually, “because
people lived here once.”

She did not say who and I did not ask. Finally she opened the door of a
small room adjoining the kitchen in which Granny Meehan still sat
solitary.