THE SCHOOLMASTER’S TALE

“You must know,” Niall began, “that Winifred is a descendant of the
proud race which inhabited the castle wherein the child now lives. You
are not, I am sure, acquainted with the history of her ancestors, nor
shall I tell it. But for a thousand years they have been foremost in
war, in minstrelsy, in beauty, in hospitality, in benefactions to the
Church and in charity to the poor. Winifred is of that race and–” he
paused and drew himself up with some pride–“and so am I.”

Suddenly I uttered an exclamation of astonishment.

“I am the uncle of her father. This part of the story she has not
learned; but she does know that for years it has been the dream of my
life to restore the old castle, to bring back the fallen glories of our
race. I, being a younger brother, was debarred from the line of
succession. That fact early stirred me into bitterness; the more so as
my elder brother, Winifred’s grandfather, was of an easy and
pleasure-loving temperament. Far from doing anything to improve matters,
he seemed to let everything go. I gradually withdrew from all
intercourse with my fellow men. I dwelt alone, in a secluded part of the
castle, and gave myself up to study. I desired to master the secrets of
the universe, and in the course of my studies I learned one thing.”

He stopped and looked at me fixedly.

“And that is the secret which I have striven so hard to keep and which I
am about to confide to you. But let that pass for the present. My
brother had an only son, and he was a son after my own heart. He seemed
to combine in himself all the best qualities of our race. He was daring,
generous, impulsive, yet steadfast and enduring. Gifted with great
personal beauty, he had rare talents and a most winning manner. On him I
built my hopes. He would in some way gain wealth, honor, renown. I
thought I had already the key to the first, but I wanted him to win the
others by his own efforts. I goaded him into action; I disgusted him
with the life of a country gentleman which his father had led–and a
poor and obscure one at that.”

Niall sighed deeply as he resumed:

“Sometimes, after an interview with me, he would mount his white horse
and gallop over the country, to control the agitation which my words had
awakened in him. He went away at last to Dublin seeking fame. Every now
and then he returned to tell me of his pursuits, and I urged him on more
and more. Suddenly his interest began to slacken, and I saw that it had
taken another direction. Next thing I heard he was married. His wife was
a mere fine lady, though of a worthy stock. But I parted from Roderick
in anger. We had a bitter quarrel. In his anger he called the old castle
a ruin, laughed at my plans for restoring it, and declared he would
never bring his wife there nor permit her to see its ruinous state.
After that he went away.”

It seemed as if Niall’s emotion would at this point prevent him from
continuing the story; but he controlled himself by an effort and went
on.

“Roderick returned only once, dressed in deep mourning, and bringing
with him a child about five years old. That was Winifred. He left her in
care of Mrs. Meehan. He promised to come back some day or send for his
daughter, but he gave no clue as to his own subsequent movements. I
myself believe he went to America. Since then I have seen in the child
the hope of our race. She has taken her father’s place in my heart.”

“But how came she to be ignorant that you were her father’s uncle?
Surely the neighbors, especially Mrs. Meehan, must have known.”

“The neighbors knew nothing. I had lived, as I told you, in retirement,
and had been absent, spending many years in the Far East. I had ceased
to attend church once youth had passed, and was never seen in public. I
vanished out of the memory of all save a few old servants, who dropped
off one by one. Mrs. Meehan may suspect something of the truth, but she
knows nothing for a certainty.”

I smiled, remembering the dark hints the blind woman had thrown out.

“But how, then,” I asked, “did you come to be known–”

“As the schoolmaster?” he put in. “I abandoned the castle for purposes
of my own. I went to live in this cabin in the hills, and I took
pupils–partly to divert attention from my real pursuits, partly to
enable me to live.”

I waited silently for the conclusion of the strange narrative; but he
had fallen into profound thought, and sat staring at the floor, seeming
to have forgotten my presence. At last he went on:

“Winifred, as I have said, was regarded by me as the hope of our race.
Without revealing to her our relationship, I treated her with the
deepest respect, in order to give her some idea of the importance of her
position as heiress of an ancient house, which, though obscured for a
time, is destined one day to be restored.”

As the old man spoke thus, something of his former excitement returned,
and he stood up, pacing the room, his eyes glowing and his features
working convulsively. Now, nothing in the whole affair had more
surprised me than the manner in which Niall had passed from a state of
almost insane fury into the quiet courtesy of a well-bred man; so I
waited till his excitement had once more subsided. Then he sat down
again upon the three-cornered stool whence he had arisen, and continued:

“If Roderick be still living, I shall find him one day and restore his
child to him. But it must be through me that this restoration is
effected; and I must at the same time offer him the means of repairing
the old castle and taking up again the life of a country gentleman.”

“Have you any reason to think he is living?” I asked.

“Oh, I do not know!” Niall answered mournfully. “For many years he sent
remittances and inquired for the child, saying that he would one day
claim her. Lately both money and letters have ceased. A rumor reached
me–I scarcely know how–that Roderick had married a second wife. Even
if that be true, he must have changed indeed if he can forget his own
child. I am haunted forever by the fear that he may, after all, be dead;
or that, living, he might one day claim Winifred and take her away from
Ireland forever. And that I will never permit.”

I was half afraid of another outbreak; but it did not come. He went on,
in a calm and composed tone of voice:

“I must confess that when I heard you were here–”

“You fancied, perhaps, that I was the second wife?” I said, smiling.

“What I fancied matters little!” he cried, almost brusquely. “But I made
up my mind that if you had come here on such a mission, you should
return disappointed.”

“Now, I may as well admit,” I said deliberately, “that I have had
thoughts of carrying Winifred away.”

He started.

“Not as the result of a preconcerted plan,” I hastened to add; “for I
never heard of Winifred nor of the castle till I came here, and I could
not even now tell you the name of her father. I have heard him spoken of
merely as Roderick.”

“Roderick O’Byrne,” said Niall, fixing his keen eyes upon my face.

It was my turn to start and to color violently, with the sudden
recollection.

“So you do, perhaps, know Mr. Roderick O’Byrne, after all?” said the
schoolmaster, dryly; and I saw that his former suspicions were revived.

“Know him? Why, yes. But as the father of Winifred–no.”

“And where, may I ask, have you met him?”

“In New York city.”

He bent eagerly forward.

“Tell me–oh, tell me how long ago was that?”

“Within the last six months.”

“Then he is still alive?”

“He was when I sailed from New York,” I assented.

Tears which he could not repress forced themselves from the old man’s
eyes and flowed down his cheeks. They were tears of joy and relief.

“O Roderick!” he murmured; “dear Roderick, son of my heart, you are upon
the green earth still, and I feared you had left it for evermore!”

“Moreover,” I went on, “you are altogether wrong in supposing he is
married again.”

“What’s that you say?” he cried joyfully. “Living and still a widower?”

“Living and still a widower.”

“You are sure of that?”




“Quite sure.”

Niall muttered some exclamation in Irish, the meaning of which I did not
know; then he turned upon me with a beaming smile.

“You are as the dawn that heralds a bright day, as the sun that peeps
from out a dark cloud, as a flower thrusting its head through the snow!”

I sat watching the schoolmaster with real gratification at the pleasure
I had given him. Then he asked:

“He never spoke to you of Winifred?”

“Never.”

“Nor of Wicklow?”

“Nor of Wicklow.”

“He has forgotten Ireland!” cried the old man bitterly. “He has become
Americanized, as they all do.”

“On the contrary,” I observed. “I heard him speak once of Ireland, and
in a way I shall never forget.”

He looked at me with sudden keenness, even suspicion; and I smiled.

“I know what you are smiling at!” Niall cried, with one of those quick
flashes of intelligence which reminded me of Winifred.

“Do you?” I said, laughing outright. “Well, then, I may as well tell you
I was smiling at the suspicion I saw in your eyes–smiling at the
contrast between my gray hairs and wrinkles and Roderick O’Byrne as I
saw him last.”

“Yet Roderick is no boy,” argued Niall. “Roderick is close to forty.”

“He has the secret of perpetual youth,” I said, warming at the
remembrance. “Winifred has it too; she will never grow old. But now my
heart is more than ever in your plans, and I should like to possess your
entire confidence,–to know, for instance, how the wealth is to be
obtained with which to restore the ancient castle.”

“That,” said Niall, impressively, “is the secret which hitherto I have
shared with no one save Winifred, and which I am about to impart to you.
But remember your promise is as solemn, as binding as an oath.”

“I remember,” I said; “and I tell you once more that no word of your
secret shall ever be repeated by me to any one without your express
permission. Take my word for it.”

Niall stood up and looked all about him, examined the door and the
window, went outside and walked around the cabin, tried the chinks in
the walls; and when he was quite convinced that no living thing was in
the vicinity, he drew a stool near, and, laying his sugar-loaf hat upon
the floor, began to pour into my ears a tale which seemed almost
magical. His appearance changed, too, as he went on with his narrative.
His eyes, alight with enthusiasm, presently took on an expression merely
of greed. The craving for gold was written on every line of his face. It
was so plain a lesson against avarice that involuntarily I shuddered.

He tossed his hair from his forehead, while his features worked
convulsively; and it was only when he left that part of the subject
which related to mere gold, and rose once more to the plan he had in
view of restoring the old castle, that he brightened up again. Then I
saw in him one of those mysterious resemblances which run through a
race: a likeness to Roderick–gay, handsome, and comparatively young; a
likeness to Winifred herself.

I had a curious feeling of unreality as I sat there and listened. The
old man might be Roderick O’Byrne himself after the passage of a score
or more of years; the cabin might be an enchanted spot, which would
vanish away at touch of a wizard’s wand; and these rude chairs and
tables might be condemned by the same strange witchery to remain forever
inanimate. I had to shake myself to get rid of this feeling which crept
over me, and seemed to overpower the sober common-sense, the practical
and prosaic wisdom, which seem to spring from the American soil.

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