THE SCHOOLMASTER’S SECRET

I had waited with breathless interest for what Niall might have to say;
but he put his whole secret in the opening words of his narrative.

“I am,” he began, “a gold-seeker–a hunter for treasure-trove.”

“A gold-seeker?” I repeated, amazed and incredulous; though here was the
explanation of many mysteries.

“Yes. Here, in these very mountains gold has been found time and time
again. There were mines here scarce a hundred years ago; ’tis said that
ten thousand pounds’ worth of gold was dug up in two months. Ten
thousand pounds! Think of it!”

Niall stopped, full of a suppressed emotion, which threatened, I
thought, to shake his strong frame to pieces.

“The old minstrels sang of the gold–the yellow gold, the red gold; and,
touching the strings of their harps, the bards told the kings of other
days of treasure that had been buried–vases, ornaments, trinkets of all
sorts–”

“But tell me,” I interrupted, “have you found any of these things?”

“I have found these treasures time and again. Some of them are now in
the British Museum, and the money for them in my cave at the
Phoul-a-Phooka with the other valuables, save those which I gave to my
little lady. My storehouse is in the loneliest spot, where the timorous
dare not venture, where the wild horse of the legend keeps guard for
me. Once I brought my little lady there, and her eyes were so dazzled
she covered them with her hands.”

I listened as in a dream.

“But gold?” I asked, in an awe-stricken voice. “Have you found–”

“About a hundred ounces,” he replied, “of genuine pure gold. But what is
a hundred ounces where tons, perhaps, lie buried?”

He sprang up and paced the room, a fever, almost of insanity, glowing on
his cheeks and in his eyes. I watched with a new interest this man, who
was making the hills and streams of his loved Ireland yield up this
treasure.

“It seems like a fairy-tale,” I said.

“It is not fairy gold,” Niall cried, with a grim smile; “and it has cost
me years of slavery. I have guarded the secret with my life. I have
spent long, lonely years in this cheerless cabin, haunting the streams
by night, washing and rewashing the precious clay in the chill dawn,
testing the gold in the fire of yonder hearth, often when the rest of
the world was sleeping. Gold has been my idol, my one devotion.”

“Do you get the gold in large pieces?”

“In every size, from the tiniest sparkle worth about sixpence to a lump
worth several shillings.”

“It is wonderful, wonderful!” I could only repeat.

“My studies in the East helped me much in my work,” Niall observed; “but
indeed for years past the study of precious metals, and how to procure
them, has been the one object of my life.”

“Even should your secret come to light,” I ventured to say, “surely
there is enough for every one in the bowels of the earth.”

“There may be,” Niall cried wildly–“oh, there may be; but no one must
know of it till I have got my portion! Besides, as all gold-seekers
know, the gold is as uncertain as a fickle woman. Sometimes in a stream
there is but a little, or there will be much in one portion of the
river’s bed and none at all in the other.”

“Did Roderick know?” I asked.

“Never. I was but beginning my search when he went away. I would not
have told him in any case. He would have wanted to share our good
fortune with every one.”

“Winifred knows?”

“Yes, she knows. I could trust her with my secret.”

He fell into deep abstraction; and I, watching him, could scarcely
realize that this quiet, thoughtful man was the same wild being who had
terrified me during the storm. It showed me the fearful power of gold
over the human heart, and how it was capable of changing an ordinary
gentleman of studious habits into the semblance of a wild beast. He
roused himself all at once to say:

“You spoke of some plan of yours for the child?”

“My plan for Winifred,” I said boldly, though with some inward fear,
“was to take her away with me to America, and put her at a convent
school, where she should be educated as befits her station in life.”

His face grew dark as I spoke, and he flashed upon me one of his old
suspicious glances.

“You wanted to take her to America! How am I to know that you are not,
after all, an agent sent by Roderick or by some of the mother’s people?”

“You have only my word for it,” I said, slightly drawing myself up. “I
can offer no other proof.”

“I suppose it is all right,” he replied, with another keen look and a
deep sigh; “if not, then has misfortune indeed overtaken me.”

This was said as if to himself; and presently, raising his voice, he
asked:

“Pray what do they teach at these convent schools?”

“They teach their pupils to be Christian ladies,” I answered warmly.

He was silent again for a moment or two, then he went on:

“I have grounded her in all her studies, and if she continues with me
she will be thoroughly well instructed in many branches. But there are
some things I can not teach her. I know that all too well.”

“And those are precisely what the child would learn at a convent
school,” I put in eagerly.

“Think for a moment,” he exclaimed vehemently, “what such a parting
would mean to me! I am old. I might never see her again. Even if I can
rely on your good faith once you are out of my sight, I will forever
stand in fear of some evil befalling her, some mischance which would
upset all my plans.”

“I thought you intended to take her to America yourself?” I said.

“Yes; to find her father, and to persuade him to come back with us to
his native land.”

“But he might refuse.”

“That would be unlikely, unless he was married again. In that case, I
would bring Winifred back to be lady of the castle.”

I sat thoughtful, musing over this plan, which seemed like a dream of
romance. But Niall’s voice broke in on my musings:

“Should I let the child go with you, it is on condition that she does
not see Roderick until I give my consent; and should I want her back
here in the meantime, she must come.”

“She is not to see her father?”

“No, no! She must go direct to the school, and Roderick must not know of
her presence there.”

“It seems hard!” I murmured.

“Hard! But does he deserve better?” said Niall. “For whatever cause, he
has left Winifred to my care and that of Mrs. Meehan all these years.”

“That is true,” I responded; “and I accept the conditions.”

“It will be the saddest moment of my life when I see my little lady
depart,” Niall exclaimed; and already his face was drawn and haggard and
his voice husky at the prospect. “But should my dream be realized, she
will acquire the manner, the accomplishments, the graces which our
Wicklow hills can not furnish. You are right; she must go.”

I was at once touched and astonished at his ready compliance with my
wishes. I had feared it might be a tedious task to overcome his
objections. But the clear mind of the man had at once perceived the
advantages of my plan.

“You see, I am putting entire trust in you. I am confiding Winifred to
you. I have already told you my secret.”

“You shall never have cause to regret either,” I cried warmly. “And as
for the conditions, they shall be put down in writing, and Winifred
shall be restored to you when and where you desire.”

“What will these hills be like without her!” he exclaimed, rising and
going to the window.

There was again that wildness in tone and manner as of a mind which had
become somewhat unsettled by the strange, wandering life he had led,
with its fever of suspense and excitement.

“What will the greensward be like, child of my heart, when your foot no
more shall press it? What will the hills be like when your eyes–asthore
machree!–shall not look upon them? And the Glen of the Dargle shall
have lost its charm when you are not there, its spirit!”




He tossed his arms above his head and rushed wildly from the cabin. I
waited for a time; but as he did not return, I slowly followed the
homeward path, content with what I had accomplished for one day, but
wondering much at the strange revelations which Niall had made.

Before I reached home I suddenly met Winifred. Her face was clouded, and
at first she scarcely noticed me.

“What is the matter with Niall?” she asked. “I met him and he would not
look at me. I called his name, but he ran away and would not speak.”

“He will tell you all in good time,” I answered soothingly.

“It is you!” she said, looking at me keenly, with a glance like that of
her kinsman. “You have been vexing him: saying something that he did not
like.”

“We must all have things said to us that we do not like, when it is for
our good,” I remarked gravely.

“I wish you had never come here! I wish you would go away!” Winifred
exclaimed, stamping her little foot till it stuck in the soft earth.

“See, how useless is ill-temper!” I said; for I was rather annoyed by
her petulance. “You have spoiled your pretty shoe. And as for going
away, when I go, you will go too.”

She turned pale, then trembled and stammered out a question or two:

“I–go–with you? Where?”

“All the way to America.”

“To America!” said Winifred, in an amazement which seemed blended with
fear or emotion of some sort.

“Yes; over the great sea,” I went on, “where you will see many new and
beautiful things.”

“But I don’t want to see them!” she replied, with an energy that
startled me.

“That is not a nice way to put it, dear,” I said gently. “I hope,
indeed, you will be a very good girl and give me as little trouble as
possible. You will have to leave your wilful ways in the mountains with
the sprites.”

“Niall will never allow it!” she cried, with childish triumph.

“Niall has just said ‘Yes.’ So I give you a month to prepare,” I
declared firmly. I had determined to exert my authority from that moment
forward, as it was necessary that I should.

“Niall has said ‘Yes’!” she repeated, drawing a sharp breath and
speaking as one in a dream. Her lip quivered; two tears shone in her
eyes, but she would not let them fall. Turning on me instead, with a
curious tone of command, she asked:

“Who are you?”

“A friend.”

“An enemy, I think!” said Winifred, and with that she turned sharply
away and was soon hidden in the brushwood. But I heard her only a few
moments afterward, sobbing aloud and calling, as Niall had done, on
Nature:

“I can’t leave the hills and the streams and the valleys! I can’t leave
Wicklow and the Dargle and the castle, and dear Granny and Moira and
Barney and Niall! Oh, it would break my heart!”

She sobbed again for a few moments; then her voice rang out defiantly:

“I will _not_ go! I will hide in the hills, as the O’Byrnes did in the
wars. I will live in a cave like them and not go to that hateful
America.”

I went back to the inn, resolving to try to win the child over to my
ideas as I had done her uncle. I foresaw many difficulties in the way;
and as I sat down on the wooden bench outside the door I began to wonder
if my idea was, after all, a mistaken one. The air was very fresh and
pure after the storm; the verdure of that Emerald Isle, so fondly
remembered by its exiled sons and daughters, was rich and glowing after
the rain; and the hills were shrouded in a golden haze, darkening into
purple near the summit. I sat and listened to a thrush singing in the
lilac bush near which I had seen Winifred sitting on the morning of our
visit to the castle, till a strange peace stole over me and I lost all
my fears.

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