LIGHT O' THE MORNING
The Story of an Irish Girl
L. T. MEADE
II. "SOME MORE OF THE LAND MUST GO"
III. THE WILD MURPHYS
IV. THE INVITATION
V. "I AM ASHAMED OF YOU"
VI. THE CAVE OF THE BANSHEE
VII. THE MURPHYS
VIII. THE SQUIRE'S TROUBLE
IX. EDUCATION AND OTHER THINGS
X. THE INVITATION
XI. THE DIAMOND CROSS
XII. A FEATHER-BED HOUSE
XIII. "THERE'S MOLLY"
XIV. BITS OF SLANG
XV. TWO LETTERS
XVI. A CHEEKY IRISH GIRL
XVII. TWO DESCRIPTIONS
XVIII. A COMPACT
XIX. "SHE WILL SOON TAME DOWN"
XXI. THE ROSE-COLORED DRESS
XXIII. THE BOX OF BON-BONS
XXIV. THE TELEGRAM
XXV. THE BLOW
XXVI. TEN POUNDS
XXVII. ADVENTURES—AND HOME AGAIN
XXVIII. THE WILD IRISH
XXX. THE LION IN His CAGE
XXXI. RELEASE OF THE CAPTIVE
XXXIII. THE CABIN ON THE MOUNTAIN
XXXIV. A DARING DEED
XXXV. THE COT WHERE HE WAS BORN
XXXVI. "I'M A HAPPY MAN"
"Why, then, Miss Nora—"
"You didn't see the masther going this way, miss?"
"What do you mean, Hannah? Father is never at home at this hour."
"I thought maybe—" said Hannah. She spoke in a dubious voice, backing a little away.
Hannah was a small, squat woman, of a truly Irish type. Her nose was celestial, her mouth wide, her eyes dark, and sparkling with fun. She was dressed in a short, coarse serge petticoat, with what is called a bedgown over it; the bedgown was made of striped calico, yellow and red, and was tied in at the waist with a broad band of the same. Hannah's hair was strongly inclined to gray, and her humorous face was covered with a perfect network of wrinkles. She showed a gleam of snowy teeth now, as she looked full at the young girl whom she was addressing.
"Ah, then, Miss Nora," she said, "it's I that am sorry for yez."
Before Nora O'Shanaghgan could utter a word Hannah had turned on her heel.
"Come back, Hannah," said Nora in an imperious voice.
"Presently, darlint; it's the childer I hear calling me. Coming, Mike asthore, coming."
The squat little figure flew down a side walk which led to a paddock: beyond the paddock was a turnstile, and at the farther end of an adjacent field a cabin made of mud, with one tiny window and a thatched roof. Hannah was making for the cabin with rapid, waddling strides. Nora stood in the middle of the broad sweep which led up to the front door of the old house.
Castle O'Shanaghgan was a typical Irish home of the ancient regime. The house, a great square pile, was roomy and spacious; it had innumerable staircases, and long passages through which the wind shrieked on stormy nights, and a great castellated tower at its north end. This tower was in ruins, and had been given up a long time ago to the exclusive tenancy of the bats, the owls, and rats so large and fierce that the very dogs were afraid of them. In the tower at night the neighbors affirmed that they heard shrieks and ghostly noises; and Nora, whose bedroom was nearest to it, rejoiced much in the distinction of having twice heard the O'Shanaghgan Banshee keening outside her window. Nora was a slender, tall, and very graceful girl of about seventeen, and her face was as typical of the true, somewhat wild, Irish beauty as Hannah Croneen's was the reverse.
In the southwest of Ireland there are traces of Spanish as well as Celtic blood in many of its women; and Nora's quantities of thick, soft, intensely black hair must have come to her from a Spanish ancestor. So also did the delicately marked black brows and the black lashes to her dark and very lovely blue eyes; but the clear complexion, the cheeks with the tenderest bloom on them, the softly dimpled lips red as coral, and the little teeth white as pearls were true Irish characteristics.
Nora waited for a moment after Hannah had left her, then, shading her eyes from the westerly sun by one hand, she turned slowly and went into the house.
"Where is mother, Pegeen?" she said to a rough-looking, somewhat slatternly servant who was crossing the hall.
"In the north parlor, Miss Nora."
"Come along, then, Creena; come along, Cushla," said the girl, addressing two handsome black Pomeranians who rushed to meet her. The dogs leaped up at her with expressions of rapture, and girl and dogs careered with a wild dance across the great, broad hall in the direction of the north parlor. Nora opened the door with a somewhat noisy bang, the dogs precipitated themselves into the room, and she followed.
"Ah, then, mother dear! and have I disturbed you?" she said.
A pale-faced lady, who was lying full-length on a very old and hard sofa, rose with a querulous expression on her face when Nora entered.
"I wish someone would teach you thoughtfulness," she said; "you are the most tiresome girl in the world. I have been two hours trying to get a wink of sleep, and just when I succeed you come in and wake me."
"It's sorry I am to my heart's core," said Nora. She went up to her mother, dropped on one knee, and looked with her rosy face into the worn and faded one of the elder woman. "Here I am, mammy," she said again, "your own little Nora; let me sit with you a bit—may I?"
Mrs. O'Shanaghgan smiled faintly. She looked all over the girl's slim figure, and finally her eyes rested on the laughing, lovely face. Then a cloud crossed her forehead, and her eyes became dim with tears.
"Have you heard the last thing, Nora?"
"There are so many last things, mother," said Nora.
"But the very last. Your father has to pay back the money which Squire Murphy of Cronane lent him. It is the queerest thing; but the mortgagee means to foreclose, as he calls it, within three months if that money is not paid in full. I know well what it means."
Nora smiled. She took her mother's hand in hers, and began to stroke it gently.
"I suppose," she said, "it means this. It means that we must part with a little more of the beloved land, every sod of which I love. We certainly do seem to be getting poorer and poorer; but never mind—nothing will ever alter the fact that—"
"That what, child?"
"That we O'Shanaghgans are the proudest and oldest family in the county, and that there is scarcely an Englishman across the water who would not give all he possesses to change places with us."
"You talk like a silly child," said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan; "and please remember that I am English."
"Oh, mummy, I am so sorry!" said the girl. She laid her soft head down on the sofa, pressing it against her mother's shoulder.
"I cannot think of you as English," she said. "You have lived here all, all my life. You belong to father, and you belong to Terence and me—what have you to do with the cold English?"
"I remember a time," said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan, "when I thought Ireland the most desolate and God-forsaken place on the earth. It is true I have become accustomed to it now. But, Nora, if you only could realize what my old home was really like."
"I don't want to realize any home different from this," said the girl, a cloud shading her bright eyes for the moment.
"You are silly and prejudiced," said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan. "It is a great trial to me to have a daughter so unsympathetic."
"Oh, mummy! I don't mean to be unsympathetic. There now, we are quite cozy together. Tell me one of the old stories; I do so love to listen."
The frown cleared from Mrs. O'Shanaghgan's forehead, and the peevish lines went out of her face. She began to talk with animation and excitement. Nora knew exactly what she was going to say. She had heard the story so often; but, although she had heard it hundreds and thousands of times, she was never tired of listening to the history of a trim life of which she knew absolutely nothing. The orderly, well-dressed servants, the punctual meals, the good and abundant food, the nice dresses, the parties, the solid education, the discipline so foreign to her own existence, all—all held their proper fascination. But although she listened with delight to these stories of a bygone time, she never envied her mother those periods of prosperity. Such a life would have been a prison to her; so she thought, although she never spoke her thought aloud.
Mrs. O'Shanaghgan began the old tale to-night, telling it with a little more verve even than usual. She ended at last with a sigh.
"Oh, the beautiful old times!" she said.
"But you didn't know father then," answered Nora, a frown coming to her brows, and an angry feeling for a moment visiting her warm heart. "You didn't have father, nor Nora, nor Terry."
"Of course not, darling, and you make up for much; but, Nora dear, although I love my husband and my children, I hate this country. I hate it!"
"Don't, mother," said Nora, with a look of pain. She started to her feet. At that moment loud, strong steps were heard in the hall; a hearty voice exclaimed:
"Where's Light o' the Morning? Where have you hidden yourself, witch?"
"It's father," said Nora. She said the words with a sort of gasp of rejoicing, and the next moment had dashed out of the room.
"SOME MORE OF THE LAND MUST GO."
Squire O'Shanaghgan was a tall, powerfully built man, with deep-set eyes and rugged, overhanging brows; his hair was of a grizzled gray, very thick and abundant; he had a shaggy beard, too, and a long overhanging mustache. He entered the north parlor still more noisily than Nora had done. The dogs yelped with delight, and flung themselves upon him.
"Down, Creena! down, Cushla!" he said. "Ah, then, Nora, they are as bewitching as yourself, little woman. What beauties they are growing, to be sure!"
"I reared them," said Nora. "I am proud of them both. At one time I thought Creena could not live; but look at her now—her coat as black as jet, and so silky."
"Shut the door, won't you, Patrick?" said his wife.
"Bless me! I forgot," said the Squire. He crossed the room, and, with an effort after quietness, closed the door with one foot; then he seated himself by his wife's side.
"Better, Eileen?" he said, looking at her anxiously.
"I wish you would not call me Eileen," she said. "I hate to have my name Irishized."
The Squire's eyes filled with suppressed fun.
"Ah, but you are half-Irish, whether you like it or not," he said. "Is not she, colleen? Bless me, what a day it has turned out! We are getting summer weather at last. What do you say to going for a drive, Eileen—Ellen, I mean? Black Bess is eating her head off in the stables. I want to go as far as Murphy's place, and you might as well come with me."
"And I too?" said Nora.
"To be sure, child. Why not? You run round to the stables, Norrie, and give the order."
Nora instantly left the room, the dogs following her.
"What ails her?" said the Squire, looking at his wife.
"Ails her, Pat? Nothing that I know of."
"Then you know very little," was his answer. "I never see that sort of anxious frown between the colleen's brows without knowing there's mischief in the wind. Somebody has been worrying her, and I won't have it." He put down his great hand with a thump on the nearest table.
"Don't, Pat. You quite shatter my nerves."
"Bless you and your nerves, Ellen. I want to give them all possible consideration; but I won't have Light o' the Morning worried."
"You'll spoil that girl; you'll rue it yet."
"Bless her heart! I couldn't spoil her; she's unspoilable. Did you ever see a sweeter bit of a thing, sound to the core, through and through?"
"Sweet or not," said the mother, "she has got to learn her lesson of life; and it is no good to be too tender with her; she wants a little bracing."
"You have been trying that on—eh?"
"Well, not exactly, Pat; but you cannot expect me to keep all our troubles to ourselves. There's that mortgage, you know."
"Bother the mortgage!" said the Squire. "Why do you harp on things the way you do? I'll manage it right enough. I am going round to see Dan Murphy now; he won't be hard on an old friend."
"Yes; but have you not to pay up?"
"Some day, I suppose."
"Now listen, Patrick. Do be reasonable. Whenever I speak of money you fight shy of the subject."
"I don't—I don't," said the Squire restlessly; "but I am dead tired. I have had a ride of thirty miles; I want my tea. Where is Nora? Do you mind my calling her? She'll order Pegeen to bring the tea here."
"No; I won't have it. We'll have tea in the dining room presently. I thought you objected to afternoon tea."
"So I do, as a rule; but I am mighty dhry—thirsty, I mean, Ellen. Well, all the better; I'll get more to drink in the dining room. Order the tea as soon as you please."
"Ring the bell, Patrick."
The Squire strode to the mantelpiece, pulled a bell-cord which hung from the ceiling, a distant bell was heard ringing in noisy fashion, and a moment afterward Pegeen put in her head.
"Come right in, Margaret," said her mistress.
"Aw! then, I'm sorry, ma'am, I forgot," said the girl. She came in, hiding both her hands under her apron.
Mrs. O'Shanaghgan uttered an impatient sigh.
"It is impossible to train these creatures," she said under her breath. Aloud, she gave her order in quiet, impassive tones:
"Tea as soon as possible in the west parlor, and sound the gong when it is ready."
"Why, then, wasn't I getting it?" said Pegeen. She left the room, leaving the door wide open.
"Just like them," said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan. "When you want the door open they invariably shut it, and when you want it shut they leave it open."
"They do that in England too, as far as I can tell," said the Squire, with a slightly nettled tone in his voice.
"Well, now, Patrick, while we have a few moments to ourselves, I want to know what you mean to do about that ten thousand pounds?"
"I am sure, Ellen, it is more than I can tell you."
"You will have to pay it, you know."
"I suppose so, some day. I'll speak to Dan to-night. He is the last man to be hard on a chap."
"Some more of the land must go," said the wife in a fretful tone. "Our rent-roll will be still smaller. There will be still less money to educate Terence. I had set my heart on his going to Cambridge or Oxford. You quite forget that he is eighteen now."
"Cambridge or Oxford!" said the Squire. "Not a bit of it. My son shall either go to Old Trinity or he does without a university education. Cambridge or Oxford indeed! You forget, Ellen, that the lad is my son as well as yours."
"I don't; but he is half an Englishman, three parts an Englishman, whatever his fatherhood," said the Squire's wife in a tone of triumph.
"Well, well! he is Terence O'Shanaghgan, for all that, and he will inherit this old place some day."
"Much there will be for him to inherit."
Eager steps were heard on the gravel, and the next instant Nora entered by the open window.
"I have given the order," she said; "Angus will have the trap round in a quarter of an hour."
"That's right, my girl; you didn't let time drag," said her father.
"Angus wants you and mother to be quite ready, for he says Black Bess is nearly off her head with spirit. Now, then, mother, shall I go upstairs and bring down your things?"
"I don't mind if you do, Nora; my back aches a good bit."
"We'll put the air-cushion in the trap," said the Squire, who, notwithstanding her fine-lady airs, had a great respect and admiration for his wife. "We'll make you right cozy, Ellen, and a rattle through the air will do you a sight of good."
"May I drive, father?" said Nora.
"You, little one? Suppose you bring Black Bess down on her knees? That horse is worth three hundred pounds, if she's worth a penny."
"Do you think I would?" said the girl reproachfully. "Now, dad, that is about the cruelest word you have said to your Nora for many a day."
"Come and give me a hug, colleen," said the Squire.
Nora ran to him, clasped her arms round his neck, and kissed him once or twice. He had moved away to the other end of the room, and now he looked her full in the face.
"You are fretting about something?"
"Not I—not I," said the girl; but she flushed.
"Listen to me, colleen," said the Squire; "if it is that bit of a mortgage, you get it right out of your head. It's not going to worry me. I am going this very evening to have a talk with Dan."
"Oh, if it is Dan Murphy you owe it to," said the girl.
"Ah, he's all right; he's the right sort; a chip of the old block—eh? He wouldn't be hard on a brother in adversity?"
"He wouldn't if he could help it," said Nora; but the cloud had not left her sensitive face. Then, seeing that father looked at her with intense anxiety, she made a valiant effort.
"Of course, I believe in you," she said; "and, indeed, what does the loss of money matter while we are together?"
"Right you are! right you are!" said the Squire, with a laugh. He clapped her on the shoulder. "Trust Light o' the Morning to look at things in the right direction," he said.
THE WILD MURPHYS.
Terence made his appearance at the tea table. In every respect he was a contrast to Nora. He was very good-looking—strikingly handsome, in fact; tall, with a graceful elegance of deportment which was in striking contrast to the burly figure of the old Squire. His face was of a nut-brown hue; his eyes dark and piercing; his features straight. Young as he was, there were the first indications of a black silky mustache on his short upper lip, and his clustering black curls grew in a high ridge off a lofty brow. Terence had the somewhat languid air which more or less characterized all his mother's movements. He was devoted to her, and took his seat now by her side. She laid her very thin and slender hand on his arm. He did not respond by look or movement to the gesture of affection; but had a very close observer been present he would have noticed that he drew his chair about the tenth of an inch nearer to hers.
Nora and her father at the other end of the table were chattering volubly. Nora's face was all smiles; every vestige of that little cloud which had sat between her dark brows a few moments before had vanished. Her blue eyes were sparkling with fun.
The Squire made brilliant sally after sally, to which she responded with all an Irish girl's aptitude for repartee.
Terence and his mother conversed in low tones.
"Yes, mother," he was saying, "I had a letter from Uncle George this morning; he wants me to go next week. Do you think you can manage?"
"How long will you be away, Terence?"
"I don't know; a couple of months, perhaps."
"How much money will it cost?"
"I shall want an evening suit, and a new dress-suit, and something for everyday. These things are disgraceful," said the lad, just glancing at the frayed coat-sleeve, beneath which showed a linen cuff of immaculate whiteness.
Terence was always the personification of fastidiousness in his dress, and for this trait in his character alone Mrs. O'Shanaghgan adored him.
"You shall have it," she said—"somehow."
"Well, I must reply tonight," he continued. "Shall I ask the governor, or will you?"
"We won't worry him, Terry; I can manage."
He looked at her a little anxiously.
"You are not going to sell any more of them?" he said.
"There is a gold chain and that diamond ring; I never wear either. I would fifty times rather think that you were enjoying yourself with my relations in England. You are fitted to grace any society. Do not say another word, my boy."
"You are the very best and noblest mother in the world," said the lad with enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, Nora and her father continued their gay conversation.
"We will take a basket with us," said Nora, "and Bridget shall give me a couple of dozen more of those little brown eggs. Mrs. Perch shall have a brood of chicks if I can manage it."
"Trust the girleen for that," said the Squire, and then they rose from table.
"Ellen," he continued, addressing his wife, "have you and Terence done colloguing together? for I hear Black Bess coming to the front door."
"Oh, hasten, mother; hasten!" said Nora. "The mare won't stand waiting; she is so fresh she is just ready to fly."
The next few moments witnessed a scene of considerable bustle. Mrs. O'Shanaghgan, with all her English nerves, had plenty of pluck, and would scorn to show even a vestige of fear before the hangers-on, as she called the numerous ragged urchins who appeared from every quarter on each imaginable occasion. Although she was shaking from head to foot with absolute terror at the thought of a drive behind Black Bess, she stepped into her seat in the tall dog-cart without a remark. The mare fidgeted and half reared.
"Whoa! whoa! Black Bess, my beauty!" said the Squire. The groom, a bright-faced lad, with a wisp of yellow hair falling over his forehead, held firmly to the reins. Nora jumped up beside her mother.
"Are you going to drive?" asked that lady.
"Yes, mummy; you know I can. Whoa, Black Bess! it's me," said the girl. She took the reins in her capable little hands; the Squire sprang up behind, and Black Bess flew down the avenue as if on the wings of the wind.
Mrs. O'Shanaghgan gave one hurried pant of suppressed anguish, and then sat perfectly still, her lips set, her hands tightly locked together. She endured these drives almost daily, but had never yet got accustomed to them. Nora, on the contrary, as they spun through the air, felt her spirits rising; the hot young blood coursed through her veins, and her eyes blazed with fun and happiness. She looked back at her father, who nodded to her briefly.
"That's it, Nora; keep her well in. Now that we are going uphill you can give her her head a bit. Whoa, Black Bess! Whoa!"
The mare, after her first wild canter, settled into a more jog-trot gait, and the dog-cart did not sway so violently from side to side. They were soon careering along a wide, well-made road, which ran for many miles along the top of some high cliffs. Below them, at their feet, the wild Atlantic waves curled and burst in innumerable fountains of spray; the roar of the waves came up to their ears, and the breath of the salt breeze, the freshest and most invigorating in the world, fanned their cheeks. Even Mrs. O'Shanaghgan felt her heart beating less wildly, and ventured to put a question or two to Nora with regard to the clucking hen, Mrs. Perch.
"I have not forgotten the basket, mammy," said the girl; "and Hannah will put the eggs under the hen tonight."
"I am quite certain that Hannah mismanaged the last brood," said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan; "but everything goes wrong at the Castle just now."
"Oh, mother, hush! he will hear," said Nora.
"It is just like you, Nora; you wish to keep——"
"Oh, come, now," said the Squire; "I hear the grumbles beginning. No grumbles when we are having our ride—eh, Ellen? I want you to come back with a hearty appetite for dinner, and a hearty inclination to sleep tonight."
They drove faster and faster. Occasionally Nora touched the mare the faintest little flick with the end of her long whip. The creature responded to her touch as though girl and horse were one.
At last they drew up outside a dilapidated gate, one hinge of which was off. The Squire jumped down from his seat, came round, and held the horse's head.
"Whoa! whoa!" he said. "Hullo, you, Mike! Why aren't you in your place? Come and open the gate this minute, lad."
A small boy, with bare feet and ragged trousers, came hurrying, head over heels, down the road. Mrs. O'Shanaghgan shuddered and shut her eyes. The gate was swung open. Nora led the mare skillfully round a somewhat sharp corner, and the next instant they were dashing with headlong speed up a steep avenue. It was neglected; weeds grew all over it, and the adjacent meadows were scarcely distinguishable from the avenue itself.
The Squire ran after the dog-cart, and leaped up while the mare was going at full speed.
"Well done, father!" called back Nora.
"Heaven preserve us!" thought Mrs. O'Shanaghgan, who still sat speechless, and as if made of iron.
At last they reached a long, rambling old house, with many small windows, interspersed with a few of enormous dimensions. These were called parliament windows, and had been put into many houses of that period in order to avoid the window-tax. Most of the windows were open, and out of some of them ragged towels were drying in the evening breeze. About half a dozen dogs, most of which were of mongrel breed, rushed forward at the sound of the wheels, barking vociferously. Nora, with a dexterous touch of her hand, drew the mare up just in front of the mansion, and then sprang lightly to her feet.'
"Now, mother, shall I help you down?"
"You had better find out first if Mrs. Murphy is in," said the Squire's wife.
A ragged urchin, such as seemed to abound like mushrooms in the place, came and held the reins close to the horse's mouth. The creature stood trembling from the violence of her exertions, and pouring down moisture at every pore. "She wants to be well rubbed down," said the Squire. "She doesn't get half exercise enough; this will never do. What if I have to make money on her, and she is spoiled?"
The low words which came to his lips were not heard by anyone; there was a frown, very like Nora's own, between his brows. The next moment a small man, with reddish hair, in a very shabby suit of half-worn tweed, appeared on the steps of the front door.
"Hullo, O'Shanaghgan, is that yourself?" he called out. "How are you, Mrs. O'Shanaghgan? Right glad to see you. You'll step inside—won't you? I believe the wife is somewhere round. Neil, my man, go and look for the missus. Tell her that Madam O'Shanaghgan is here, and the Squire. Well, Nora, I suppose you are wanting a chat with Bridget? You won't find her indoors this fine evening."
"Where is she, Mr. Murphy?" asked the girl. "I do want to have a talk with her."
"Ah! what's the basket for?"
"I want her to give me some of the pretty brown eggs."
"Well, go right down there by the sea-path, and you'll find her, as likely as not."
"Very well," answered Nora. Slinging her basket on her arm, she started for her walk. As soon as she was out of sight she began to run. Presently she stopped and began whistling "The Wearing of the Green," which was responded to in a moment by another voice, sweet as that of a blackbird. She looked to right and left, and presently saw a pair of laughing black eyes looking down at her from beneath the shelter of a huge oak tree.
"Here I am. Will you climb up?" said the voice of Bridget Murphy.
"Give me a hand, and I'll be up with you in a moment," said Nora. She tossed her basket on the ground; a very firm, little brown hand was extended; and the next moment the girls were seated side by side on a stout branch of the tree.
"Well, and what has brought you along here?" said Bridget.
"I came with father and mother in the dog-cart," replied Nora. "Father let me drive Black Bess. I had a jolly time; but she did pull a bit—my wrists are quite stiff."
"I am glad you have come," said the other girl. "I was having a concert all by myself. I can imitate the thrush, the blackbird, and most of the birds round here. Shall I do the thrush for you?"
Before Nora could speak she began imitating the full liquid notes of the bird to perfection.
"I declare you have a genius for it," said Nora. "But how are you yourself, Biddy?"
"What should ail me?" replied Biddy. "I never had a care nor a worry nor a trouble yet; the day is long, and my heart is light. I am at peace, and I never had an ache in my body yet. But what is up with you, Nora alannah?"
"It's that mortgage, you know," said Nora, dropping her voice. "What is your father going to do?"
"Oh, the mortgage," said Bridget. "Mr. Morgan came down from Dublin yesterday; he and father had a long talk. I don't know. I believe there's worry in the air, and when there is I always steer clear of it."
"Your father, you mean?"
"I can't tell you; don't question me. I am glad you have come. Can't you stay for the night?"
"No, I can't. I must go back with father and mother. The fact is this, Bridget, I believe your father would do anything in the world for you."
"I suppose he would. What do you want to coax out of me now? Oh, Nora alannah! don't let us talk of worries. Come down to the sea with me—won't you? I have found the most lovely cave. I mean to explore it with lanterns. You go into the cave, and you can walk in nearly half a mile; and then it takes a sudden turn to the right, and they say there's an entrance into another cave, and just beyond that there's a ghost supposed to be. Some people say it is the home of the O'Shanaghgans' Banshee; but whatever it is, I mean to see all about it."
"Do you mean the Sea-Nymphs' Cave?" said Nora. "But you can only get to that by crossing the bay."
"Yes. Well, I am going tomorrow night; the moon is at the full. You will come over and go with me—won't you?"
"Oh! I wish I could."
"But why can't you? Don't let us worry about fathers and mothers. We're a pair of girls, and must have our own larks. There's Neil and there's Mike; they will get the boat all ready, and we can start off for the cave just when the tide is high; we can only get in then. We'll run the boat in as far as it will go, and we'll see what we'll see. You will come—won't you, Nora?"
"I should like it of all things in the world," said Nora.
"Well, why not? You can come over tomorrow afternoon, and stay the night here. Just say that I have asked you."
"But mother does not much like my sleeping out."
"You mean that she does not like you to sleep at the house of the wild Murphys—that's what you mean, Nora. Then, get away; I don't want to force my company on you. I am as good as any other girl in Ireland; I have the blood of the old Irish kings in my veins; but if you are too proud to come, why——"
"I am not, and you know it," said Nora; "but mother is an Englishwoman, and she thinks we are all a little rough, you and I into the bargain. All the same, I'll come to-morrow. I do want to explore that cave. Yes, I'll come if you give me a proper invitation before mother."
"Oh, mercy me!" said the girl, "must I go back to the house? I am so precious shabby, and your lady-mother has got such piercing eyes. But there, we can smuggle in the back way. I'll go up to my room and put on my bits of finery. Bedad! but I look as handsome as the best when I am dressed up. Come along, Nora; we'll get in the back way, and I'll give the invitation in proper style."
Bridget and Nora began to climb up a very steep and narrow winding path. It was nothing more than a grass path in the midst of a lot of rock and underwood, but the girls were like young chamois, and leaped over such obstacles with the lightness of fawns. Presently they arrived at the back entrance of Cronane, the Murphys' decidedly dilapidated residence. They had to cross a courtyard covered with rough cobbles and in a sad state of neglect and mess. Some pigs were wallowing in the mire in one corner, and a rough pony was tethered to a post not far off; he was endeavoring, with painful insistence, to reach a clump of hay which was sticking out of a hayrick a foot or two away. Nora, seeing his wistful eyes, sprang forward, pulled a great handful of the hay, and held it to his mouth. The little creature almost whinnied with delight.
"There you are," said Bridget. "What right have you to give our hay to that pony?"
"Oh, nonsense," said Nora; "the heart in him was starving." She flung her arms round the pony's neck, pressed a kiss on his forehead, and continued to cross the yard with Biddy. Two or three ragged urchins soon impeded their path; one of them was the redoubtable Neil, the other Mike.
"Is it to-morrow night you want the boat, Miss Biddy?" said Neil.
Bridget dropped her voice to a whisper.
"Look here, Neil," she said, "mum's the word; you are not to let it out to a soul. You and Mike shall come with us, and Miss Nora is coming too."
Neil cast a bashful and admiring glance at handsome Nora, as she stood very erect by Biddy's side.
"All right, miss," he said.
"At ten o'clock," said Bridget; "have the boat in the cove then, and we'll be down there and ready."
"But they say, miss, that the Banshee is out on the nights when the moon is at the full."
"The O'Shanaghgans' Banshee," said Biddy, glancing at Nora, whose face did not change a muscle, although the brightness and wistfulness in her eyes were abundantly visible. She was saying to herself:
"I would give all the world to speak to the Banshee alone—to ask her to get father out of his difficulty."
She was half-ashamed of these thoughts, although she knew and almost gloried in the fact that she was superstitious to her heart's core.
She and Biddy soon entered the house by the back entrance, and ran up some carpetless stairs to Biddy's own room. This was a huge bedroom, carpetless and nearly bare. A little camp-bed stood in one corner, covered by a colored counterpane; there was a strip of carpet beside the bed, and another tiny strip by a wooden washhand-stand. The two great parliament windows were destitute of any curtain or even blind; they stared blankly out across the lovely summer landscape as hideous as windows could be.
It was a perfect summer's evening; but even now the old frames rattled and shook, and gave some idea of how they would behave were a storm abroad.
Biddy, who was quite accustomed to her room and never dreamed that any maiden could sleep in a more luxurious chamber, crossed it to where a huge wooden wardrobe stood. She unlocked the door, and took from its depths a pale-blue skirt trimmed with quantities of dirty pink flounces.
"Oh, you are not going to put that on," said Nora, whose own training had made her sensitive to incongruity in dress.
"Yes, I am," said Biddy. "How can I see your lady-mother in this style of thing?"
She went and stood in front of Nora with her arms akimbo.
"Look," she said, "my frock has a rent from here to here, and this petticoat is none of the best, and my stockings—well, I know it is my own fault, but I won't darn them, and there is a great hole just above the heel. Now, this skirt will hide all blemishes."
"But what will your mother say?"
"Bless her!" said Biddy, "she won't even notice. Here, let's whip on the dress."
She hastily divested herself of her ragged cotton skirt, and put on the pale blue with the dirty silk flounces.
"What are you looking so grave for?" she said, glancing up at Nora. "I declare you're too stately for anything, Nora O'Shanaghgan! You stand there, and I know you criticise me."
"No; I love you too much," replied Nora. "You are Biddy Murphy, one of my greatest friends."
"Ah, it's sweet to hear her," said Biddy.
"But, all the same," continued Nora, "I don't like that dress, and it's terribly unsuitable. You don't look ladylike in it."
"Ladylike, and I with the blood of——"
"Oh, don't begin that," said Nora; "every time I see you you mention that fact. I have not the slightest doubt that the old kings were ruffians, and dressed abominably."
"If you dare," said Biddy. She rushed up to the bed, dragged out her pillow, and held it in a warlike attitude. "Another word about my ancestors, and this will be at your devoted head!" she cried.
Nora burst into a merry laugh.
"There, now, that's better," said Biddy. She dropped the pillow and proceeded with her toilet. The dirty skirt with its tawdry flounces was surmounted by a bodice of the same material, equally unsuitable.
Biddy brushed out her mop of jet-black hair, which grew in thick curls all over her head and stood out like a mop round her shoulders. She was a plain girl, with small, very black eyes, a turned-up nose, and a wide mouth; but there was an irresistible expression of drollery in her face, and when she laughed, showing her milk-white teeth, there were people who even thought her attractive. Nora really loved her, although the two, standing side by side, were, as far as appearances were concerned, as the poles asunder.
"Now, come along," said Biddy. "I know I look perfectly charming. Oh, what a sweet, sweet blue it is, and these ducky little flounces! It was Aunt Mary O'Flannagan sent me this dress at Christmas. She wore it at a fancy ball, and said it might suit me. It does, down to the ground. Let me drop a courtesy to you, Nora O'Shanaghgan. Oh, how proper we look! But I don't care! Now I'm not afraid to face anyone—why, the old kings would have been proud of me. Come along—do."
She caught Nora's hand; they dashed down the wide, carpetless stairs, crossed a huge hall, and entered a room which was known as the drawing room at Cronane. It was an enormous apartment, but bore the same traces of neglect and dirt which the whole of the rest of the house testified to. The paper on the walls was moldy in patches, and in one or two places it had detached itself from the wall and fell in great sheets to the ground. One loose piece of paper was tacked up with two or three huge tacks, and bulged out, swaying with the slightest breeze. The carpet, which covered the entire floor, was worn threadbare; but, to make up for these defects, there were cabinets of the rarest and most exquisite old china, some of the pieces being worth fabulous sums. Vases of the same china adorned the tall marble mantelpiece, and stood on brackets here and there about the room. There were also some exquisite and wonderfully carved oak, a Queen Anne sofa, and several spindle-legged chairs. An old spinet stood in a distant window, and the drab moreen curtains had once been handsome.
Standing on the hearth, with his elbow resting on the marble mantelpiece close to a unique vase of antique design, stood Squire O'Shanaghgan. He was talking in pleasant and genial tones to Mrs. Murphy, a podgy little woman, with a great likeness to Biddy.
Mrs. Murphy wore a black alpaca dress and a little three-cornered knitted shawl across her shoulders. She had gray hair, which curled tightly like her daughter's; on top of it was a cap formed of rusty black velvet and equally rusty black lace. She looked much excited at the advent of the Squire, and her cheeks testified to the fact by the brightness of their color.
Mr. Murphy was doing penance opposite to Mrs. O'Shanaghgan. He was dreadfully afraid of that stately lady, and was glancing nervously round at his wife and the Squire from moment to moment.
"Yes, madam," he was saying, "it's turnips we are going to plant in that field just yonder. We have had a very good crop of hay too. It is a fine season, and the potatoes promise to be a sight for sore eyes."
"I hate the very name of that root," said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan in her most drawling tones.
"Why, then, ma'am, you don't say so," answered Murphy; "it seems hard on the poor things that keep us all going. The potheen and the potatoes—what would Ireland be without 'em? Glory be to goodness, it's quite awful to hear you abusing the potato, ma'am."
"I am English, you know," said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan.
On this scene Nora and Biddy entered. Mr. Murphy glanced with intense relief at his daughter. Mrs. O'Shanaghgan slightly raised her brows. It was the faintest of movements, but the superciliousness of the action smote upon Nora, who colored painfully.
Biddy, taking her courage in her hand, went straight up to the august lady.
"How do you do?" she said.
Mrs. O'Shanaghgan extended her hand with a limp action.
"Oh, dear!" panted Biddy.
"What is up, my dear Bridget?" said her mother, turning round and looking at her daughter. "Oh, to goodness, what have you put that on for? It's your very best Sunday-go-to-meeting dress, and you won't have another, I can tell you, for six months."
"There now, mother, hush, do," said Biddy. "I have put it on for a purpose. Why, then, it's sweet I want to make myself, and I believe it's sweet I look. Oh, there's the mirror; let me gaze at myself."
She crossed the room, and stood in front of a long glass, examining her unsuitable dress from the front and side; and then, being thoroughly satisfied with the elegance of appearance, she went back and stood in front of Mrs. O'Shanaghgan.
"It's a request I want to make of you, ma'am," she said.
"Well, Biddy, I will listen to it if you will ask me properly," said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan.
"Yes, to be sure," said Biddy. "How shall I say it?"
"Speak quietly, my dear."
"Yes, Biddy, I do wish you would take pattern by Nora, and by Mrs. O'Shanaghgan," said Mrs. Murphy, who in her heart of hearts envied Mrs. O'Shanaghgan's icy manners, and thought them the most perfect in all the world. She was in mortal fear of this good lady, even more terrified of her than her husband was.
"Well, Biddy," said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan.
"May Nora come and spend tomorrow night here?"
"No," was on Mrs. O'Shanaghgan's lips; but just then the Squire came forward.
"To be sure she may; it will do her a sight of good. The child hardly ever goes from home."
Mrs. O'Shanaghgan raised displeased eyes to her husband's face.
"Girls of Nora's age ought to stay at home," she said.
"Yes, to be sure, to be sure," said the Squire; "and we would miss her awfully if she was away from us; but a day or two off duty—eh, madam?" He glanced at his wife.
"You have your answer, Biddy," said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan; "her father wishes Nora to accept your invitation. She may stay away for one night—no longer."
Biddy winked broadly round at Nora.
"Now, then," she said, "come along." She seized her friend by the arm, and whisked her out of the room.
"It was the dress that did it," she said; "it is the loveliest garment in all the world. Come along now, and let's take it off. I want to gather those eggs for you."
She ran upstairs again, followed by Nora. The dress was disposed of in the large wooden wardrobe, the old torn frock readjusted on Biddy's stout form, and the girls went out into the lovely summer air. The eggs which Nora required were put into the little basket, and in half an hour the O'Shanaghgans' party were returning at full speed to Castle O'Shanaghgan. Nora glanced once into her father's face, and her heart gave a great leap. Her high spirits left her as if by magic; she felt a lump in her throat, and during the rest of the drive hardly spoke.
The Squire, on the contrary, talked incessantly. He talked more than ever after Nora had looked at him. He slapped his wife on the shoulder, and complimented her on her bravery. Nora's driving was the very best in all the world; she was a born whip; she had no fear in her; she was his own colleen, the Light o' the Morning, the dearest, sweetest soul on earth.
Mrs. O'Shanaghan replied very briefly and coldly to her husband's excited words. She treated them with what she imagined the contempt they deserved; but Nora was neither elated just then by her father's praise nor chilled by her mother's demeanor. Every thought of her heart, every nerve in her highly strung frame, was concentrated on one fact alone—she had surprised a look, a look on the Squire's face, which told her that his heart was broken.
"I AM ASHAMED OF YOU."
It was late that same evening, and the household at the Castle had all retired to rest. Nora was in her own room. This room was not furnished according to an English girl's fancy. It was plain and bare, but, compared to Biddy Murphy's chamber, it was a room of comfort and even luxury. A neat carpet covered the floor, there were white dimity curtains to the windows, and the little bed in its distant recess looked neat and comfortable. It is true that the washhand-stand was wooden, and the basin and jug of the plainest type; but Mrs. O'Shanaghgan herself saw that Nora had at least what she considered the necessaries of life. She had a neat hanging-press for her dresses, and a pretty chest of drawers, which her mother herself had saved up her pin-money to buy for her.
Nora now stood by one of the open windows, her thick and very long black hair hanging in a rippling mass over her neck and shoulders. Suddenly, as she bent out of the window, the faint, very faint perfume of a cigar came up on the night air. She sniffed excitedly for a moment, and then, bending a little more forward, said in a low tone:
"Is that you, Terry?"
"Yes—why don't you go to bed?" was the somewhat ungracious response.
"I am not sleepy. May I come down and join you?"
"Will you come up and join me?"
The answer was about to be "No"; there was a moment's hesitation, then Nora's voice said pleadingly, "Ah, do now, Terry; I want to say something so badly."
"But if anybody hears?"
"They can't hear. Father and mother's room is at the other end of the house."
"All right; don't say any more; you'll wake people with that chatter of yours. I'm coming."
In a couple of minutes there was a knock at Nora's door. She flew to open it, and Terence came in.
"What do you want?" he said.
"To talk to you; I have got something to say. Come over and sit by the window."
"The first thing to do is to put out that light," said Nora. She ran to the dressing table, and before her brother could prevent her had extinguished the candle.
"Now, then, there is the dear old lady moon to look down upon us, and nothing else can see us."
"Why don't you go to bed, Nora? Hannah would say that you are losing your beauty-sleep sitting up at this, hour."
"As if anything about me mattered just now," said Nora.
"Why, what's up?"
"The old thing, Terry; you must know what's up."
"What old thing? I am sure I can't guess."
"Well, then, if you can't you ought. Father is in a peck of trouble—a peck of trouble."
Nora's voice broke and trembled. Terence, who disliked a scene beyond anything, fidgeted restlessly. He leaned out of the window, and dropped his cigar ash on the ground beneath.
"And you are his only son and the heir to Castle O'Shanaghgan."
"The heir to a pack of ruins," said the boy impatiently.
"Terry, you don't deserve to be father's son. How dare you speak like that of the—the beloved old place?"
"Come, come, Nora, if you are going into heroics I think I'll be off to bed," said Terence, yawning.
"No, you won't; you must listen. I have got something most important to say."
"Well, then, I will give you five minutes; not another moment. I know you, Nora; you always exaggerate things. You are an Irishwoman to your backbone."
"I am, and I glory in the fact."
"You ought to be ashamed to glory in it. Don't you want to have anything to do with mother and her relations?"
"I love my mother, but I am glad I don't take after her," said Nora; "yes, I am glad."
The moon shone on the two young faces, and Nora looked up at her brother; he put on a supercilious smile, and folded his arms across his broad chest.
"Yes," she replied; "and I should like to shake you for looking like that. I am glad I am Irish through and through and through. Would I give my warm heart and my enthusiasm for your coldness and deliberation?"
"Good gracious, Nora, what a little ignorant thing you are! Do you suppose no Englishman has enthusiasm?"
"We'll drop the subject," said Nora. "It is one I won't talk of; it puts me into such a boiling rage to see you sitting like that."
Terence did not speak at all for a moment; then he said quietly:
"What is this thing that you have got to tell me? The five minutes are nearly up, you know."
"Oh, bother your five minutes! I cannot tell you in five minutes. When my heart is scalded with unshed tears, how can I measure time by minutes? It has to do with father; it is worse than anything that has ever gone before."
"What is it, Norrie?" Her brother's tone had suddenly become gentle. He laid his hand for a moment on her arm; the gentleness of the tone, the unexpected sweetness of the touch overcame Nora; she flung her arms passionately round his neck.
"Oh, and you are the only brother I have got!" she sobbed; "and I could love you—I could love you like anything. Can't you be sympathetic? Can't you be sweet? Can't you be dear?"
"Oh, come, come!" said Terence, struggling to release himself from Nora's entwining arms; "I am not made like you, you know; but I am not a bad chap at heart. Now, what is it?"
"I will try and tell you."
"And for goodness' sake don't look so sorrowfully at me, Nora; we can talk, and we can act and do good deeds, without giving ourselves away. I hate girls who wear their hearts on their sleeves."
"Oh! you will never understand," said Nora, starting back again; all her burst of feeling turned in upon herself. "I can't imagine how you are father's son," she began. But then she stopped, waited for a moment, and then said quietly, "There is a fresh mortgage, and it is for a very big sum."
"Oh, is that all?" said Terence. "I have heard of mortgages all my life; it seems to be the fashion at O'Shanaghgan to mortgage to any extent. There is nothing in that; father will give up a little more of the land."
"How much land do you think is left?"
"I am sure I can't say; not much, I presume."
"It is my impression," said Nora—"I am not sure; but it is my impression—that there is nothing left to meet this big thing but the—the—the land on which"—her voice broke—"Terry, the land on which the house stands."
"Really, Nora, you are so melodramatic. I don't know how you can know anything of this."
"I only guess. Mother is very unhappy."
"Mother? Is she?"
"Ah, I have touched you there! But anyhow, father is in worse trouble than he has been yet; I never, never saw him look as he did tonight."
"As if looks mattered."
"The look I saw tonight does matter," said Nora. "We were coming home from Cronane, and I was driving."
"It is madness to let you drive Black Bess," interrupted Terence. "I wonder my father risks spoiling one of his most valuable horses."
"Oh, nonsense, Terry; I can drive as well as you, and better, thanks," replied Nora, much nettled, for her excellent driving was one of the few things she was proud of. "Well, I turned round, and I saw father's face, and, oh! it was just as if someone had stabbed me through the heart. You know, or perhaps you don't, that the last big loan came from Squire Murphy."
"Old Dan Murphy; then we are as safe as we can be," said Terence, rising and whistling. "You really did make me feel uncomfortable, you have such a queer way; but if it is Dan Murphy, he will give father any amount of time. Why, they are the best of friends."
"Well, father went to see him on the subject—I happen to know that—and I don't think he has given him time. There is something wrong, anyhow—I don't know what; but there is something very wrong, and I mean to find out tomorrow."
"Nora, if I were you I wouldn't interfere. You are only a young girl, and these kind of things are quite out of your province. Father has pulled along ever since you and I were born. Most Irish gentlemen are poor in these days. How can they help it? The whole country is going to ruin; there is no proper trade; there is no proper system anywhere. The tenants are allowed to pay their rent just as they please——"
"As if we could harry them," said inconsistent Nora. "The poor dears, with their tiny cots and their hard, hard times. I'd rather eat dry bread all my days than press one of them."
"If these are your silly views, you must expect our father to be badly off, and the property to go to the dogs, and everything to come to an end," said the brother in a discontented tone. "But there, I say once more that you have exaggerated in this matter; there is nothing more wrong than there has been since I can remember. I am glad I am going to England; I am glad I am going to be out of it all for a bit."
"You going to England—you, Terry?"
"Yes. Don't you know? Our Uncle George Hartrick has asked me to stay with him, and I am going."
"And you can go? You can leave us just now?"
"Why, of course; there will be fewer mouths to feed. It's a good thing every way."
"But Uncle George is a rich man?"
"What of that?"
"I mean he lives in a big place, and has heaps and heaps of money," said Nora.
"So much the better."
"You cannot go to him shabby. What are you going to do for dress?"
"Mother will manage that."
"Mother!" Nora leaped up from the window-ledge and stood facing her brother. "You have spoken to mother?"
"Of course I have. Dear me, Nora, you are getting to be quite an unpleasant sort of girl."
"You have spoken to mother," repeated Nora, "and she has promised to help you? How will she do it?"
Terence moved restlessly.
"I suppose she knows herself how she will do it."
"And you will let her?" said Nora—"you, a man, will let her? You know she has no money; you know she has nothing but her little trinkets, and you allow her to sell those to give you pleasure? Oh, I am ashamed of you! I am sorry you are my brother. How can you do it?"
"Look here, Nora, I won't be scolded by you. After all, I am your elder, and you are bound, at any rate, to show me decent outward respect. If you only mean to talk humbug of this sort I am off to bed."
Terence rose from his place on the window-ledge, and, without glancing at Nora, left the room. When he did so she clasped her hands high above her head, and sat for a moment looking out into the night. Her face was quivering, but no tears rose to her wide-open eyes. After a moment she turned, and began very slowly to undress.
"I will see the Banshee tomorrow, if it is possible," she whispered under her breath. "If ruin can be averted, it shall be. I don't mind leaving the place; I don't mind starving. I don't mind anything but that look on father's face. But father's heart shall not be broken; not while Nora O'Shanaghgan is in the world."
THE CAVE OF THE BANSHEE.
At ten o'clock on the following evening two eager excited girls might have been seen stealing down a narrow path which led to Murphy's Cove. Murphy's Cove was a charming little semicircular bay which ran rather deeply into the land. The sand here was of that silvery sheen which, at low tide, shone like burnished silver. The cove was noted for its wonderful shells, producing many cowries and long shells called pointers.
In the days of her early youth Nora had explored the treasures of this cove, and had secured a valuable collection of shells, as well as very rare seaweeds, which she had carefully dried. Her mother had shown her how to make seaweeds and shells into baskets, and many of these amateur productions adorned the walls of Nora's bedroom.
All the charm of these things had passed away, however; the time had come when she no longer cared to gather shells or collect seaweeds. She felt that she was turning very fast into a woman. She had all an Irish girl's high spirits; but she had, added to these, a peculiarly warm and sensitive heart. When those she loved were happy, no one in all the world was happier than Nora O'Shanaghgan; but when any gloom fell on the home-circle, then Nora suffered far more than anyone gave her credit for.
She had passed an anxious day at home, watching her father intently, afraid to question him, and only darting glances at him when she thought he was not looking. The Squire, however, seemed cheerful enough, plodding over his land, or arranging about the horses, or doing the thousand-and-one small things which occupied his life.
Mrs. O'Shanaghgan seemed to have forgotten all about the mortgage, and was eagerly discussing ways and means with Terence. Terence avoided Nora's eyes, and rode off early in the evening to see the nearest tailor. It was not likely that this individual could make a fitting suit for the young heir to O'Shanaghgan; but the boy must have something to travel in, and Mrs. O'Shanaghgan gave implicit directions as to the London tailor whom he was to visit as soon as he reached the Metropolis.
"For you are to look your best, and never to forget that you are my son," was her rejoinder; and Terence forgot all about Nora's words on the previous evening. He was to start in two days' time. Even Nora became excited over his trip and in her mother's account of her Uncle Hartrick.
"I wish you were going, Nora," said the mother. "I should be proud of you. Of course you are a little rough colt; but you could be trained;" and then she looked with sudden admiration at her handsome daughter.
"She has a face in a thousand," she thought, "and she is absolutely unconscious of her beauty."
At five o'clock Nora had started off in the pony-trap to visit her friend Biddy. The trap had been brought back by one of the numerous gossoons who abounded all over O'Shanaghgan, and Biddy and Nora had a few hours before the great secret expedition was to take place. And now the time had come. The girls had put on thick serge petticoats, short jackets, and little tight-fitting caps on their heads. There was always a breeze blowing round that extreme corner of the Atlantic. Never did the finest summer day find the waves calm there. Nora and Biddy had been accustomed to these waves since their earliest girlhood, and were not the least afraid. They stood now waiting in the little cove, and looking round wonderingly for the appearance of Mike and Neil upon the scene. They were to bring the boat with them. The girls were to wade through the surf to get into it, and Biddy was stooping down to take off her shoes and stockings for the purpose.
"Dear, dear!" she cried. "Do you see that ugly bank of clouds just behind the moon? I hope my lady moon is not going to hide herself; we can do nothing in the cave if we have not light."
"But the cave is dark, surely?"
"Yes. But don't you know there is a break in the cliffs above, just in the center? And it is down there the moon sends its shafts when it is at the full; it is there the Banshee will meet us, if we are to see her at all. The shafts from the moon will only enter the cave at midnight. I have counted the times, and I know everything."
"I want to see the Banshee so badly," said Nora.
"You won't be frightened, then, Nora?"
"Frightened? No. Not of our own Banshee."
"They say," began Biddy, "that if you see a spirit, and come face to face with it, you are good for—"
"What?" said Nora.
"If you hold out during the year you have seen the spirit, you are good to live for another ten; but during that first year you are in extreme danger of dying. If you escape that fate, however, and are whole and sound, you will be quite safe to live for ten more years. They say nothing can send you out of the world; not sickness, nor accidents, nor fire, nor water; but the second year you are liable to an accident, and the year after to a misfortune; then in the fourth year your luck turns—in the fourth year you find gold, in the fifth year health, in the sixth year beauty. Oh, I would give anything to be beautiful!"
"You are very well as you are, Biddy."
"Very well as I am? What nonsense! Look at my turned-up nose." Here Biddy pressed her finger on the feature in question.
"It looks very racy," answered Nora.
"Bedad, then, it does that," replied Biddy. "I believe I got it sound and safe from one of the old——"
"You needn't go on," cried Nora. "I know what you are going to say."
"And why shouldn't I say it? You would be proud enough to be descended from——"
"Oh, I have a very fine descent of my own," answered Nora, with spirit.
"Now, if I was like you," began Biddy, "wouldn't I be proud, just? But dear, dear! there never were two Irish girls farther asunder as far as appearance goes. See here, let me describe myself, feature by feature. Oh, here's a clear pool. I can get a glimpse of myself in it. You come and look in too, Nora. Now, then, we can see ourselves. Oh, holy poker! it's cruel the difference between us. Here's my forehead low and bumpy, and my little nose, scarcely any of it, and what there is turned right up to the sky; and my wide mouth, and my little eyes, and my hair just standing straight up as rakish as you please. And look at you, with your elegant features and your—oh, but it's genteel you are!—and I love you, Nora alannah; I love you, and am not a bit jealous of you."
Here the impulsive girl threw her arms round her friend's neck and kissed her.
"All the same," she added, "I wish those clouds were not coming up. It has been so precious hot all day that I should not be the least surprised if we had a thunderstorm."
"A thunderstorm while we are in the cave would be magnificent," said Nora.
"Does anything ever frighten you, Nora?"
"I don't think anything in nature could frighten me; but there are some things I am frightened at."
"What? Do tell me. I should like to know."
"You'll keep it a secret—won't you, Biddy?"
"To be sure I will. When did I ever blaze out anything you told me? If I am plain, I am faithful."
"Well, I am afraid of pain," said Nora.
"Pain! You? But I have seen you scratch yourself ever so deep and not so much as wink; and I mind that time when you twisted your ankle and you didn't even pretend you were hurt."
"Oh, it is not that sort of pain. I am terrified of pain when it affects those I love. But there! don't ask me any more. Here are the boys; we'll jump into the boat and be off. Why, it is half-past ten, and it will take half-an-hour's good rowing to cross the bay, and then we have to enter the cave and——"
"I don't like those clouds," said Biddy. "I wonder if it is safe to go."
"Safe?" said Nora. "We must go. Mother won't allow me to spend another night here, and I shall lose my chance. I am determined to speak to the Banshee or die in the attempt."
The splash of oars was now distinctly audible, and the next moment a four-oared gig swiftly turned the little promontory and shot with a rapid movement into the bay.
"Why," said Biddy, running forward, "who's in the boat?"
A lad and a man now stood upright and motioned to the girls.
"Where's Neil?" said Biddy.
"Neil could not come, Miss Biddy, so I'm taking his place," said the deep voice of a powerful-looking man. He had a black beard down to his waist, flashing black eyes, a turned-up nose, and a low forehead. A more bull-dog and ferocious-looking individual it would be hard to find. Biddy, however, knew him; he was Neil's father—Andy Neil, as he was called. He was known to be a lawless and ferocious man, and was very much dreaded by most of the neighbors around. Neither Nora nor Biddy, however, felt any reason to fear him and Nora said almost cheerfully:
"As we are to have such a stiff row, it is just as well to have a man in the boat."
"Faix, now, young ladies, come along, and don't keep me waiting," said Andy, rising and brandishing one of his oars in a threatening way. "There's a storm coming on, and I want to be out of this afore it overtakes us. Oh, glory be to goodness, there's a flash of lightning!"
There came a flash on the edge of the horizon, lighting up the thick bank of rapidly approaching clouds.
"Nora, had we better go tonight?" said Biddy. She had as little fear as her friend, but even she did not contemplate with pleasure a wild storm in the midst of the Atlantic.
The man Neil looked gravely round.
"Och! good luck to ye now, young ladies; don't be kaping me waiting after the botheration of coming to fetch yez. Come along, and be quick about it."
"To be sure," said Nora. She splashed bravely into the surf, for the boat could not quite reach the shore. The waves reached high above her pretty, rosy ankles as she stepped into the boat.
Biddy followed in her wake; and then Nora, producing a rough towel, began to dry her feet. Both girls put on their shoes and stockings again in absolute silence.
Neil had now faced the boat seaward, and with great sweeps with a pair of sculls was taking it out to sea. The tide was in their favor, and they went at a rapid rate. The man did not speak at all, and his face was in complete shadow. Nora breathed hard in suppressed excitement and delight. Biddy crouched at the bottom of the boat and watched the clouds as they came up.
"I wish I hadn't come," she muttered once or twice.
The boy Mike sat at the stern. The two girls had nothing whatever to do.
"Shall I take an oar, Andy?" said Nora at last.
"I can take a pair of oars and help you," said the girl.
"If it plazes you, miss." The man hastily stepped to the back of the boat. Nora took her place, and soon they were going at greater speed than ever. She was a splendid oarswoman, and feathered her oars in the most approved fashion.
In less than the prescribed half-hour they reached the entrance to the great cave.
They were safe. A hollow, booming noise greeted them as they came close. Andy bent forward and gave Nora a brief direction.
"Ship your oars now, miss. Aisy now; aisy now. Now, then, I'll take one pull; pull your left oar again. Now, here we are."
He spoke with animation. Nora obeyed him implicitly. They entered the shadow of the cave, and the next instant found themselves in complete darkness. The boat bobbed up and down on the restless water, and just at that instant a flash of vivid lightning illuminated all the outside water, followed by a crashing roar of thunder.
"The storm is on us; but, thank the Almighty, we're safe," said Mike, with a little sob. "I wish to goodness we hadn't come, all the same."
"And so do I," said Biddy; "it is perfectly awful being in a cave like this. What shall we do?"
"Do!" said Neil. "Hould your tongues and stay aisy. Faix, it's the Almighty is having a bit of a talk; you stay quiet and listen."
The four oars were shipped now, and the boat swayed restlessly up and down.
"Aren't we going any farther?" said Nora.
"Not while this storm lasts. Oh, for goodness' sake, Nora, do stay quiet," said Biddy.
Andy now produced out of his pocket a box of matches and a candle. He struck a match, applied it to the candle, and the next moment a feeble flame shot up. It was comparatively calm within the cave.
"There! that will light us a bit," said Andy. "The storm won't last long. It's well we got into shelter. Now, then, we'll do fine."
"You don't think," said Biddy, in a terrified tone, "that the cave will be be crashed in?"
"Glory be to Heaven, no, miss—we have cheated the storm coming here." The man smiled as he spoke, showing bits of broken teeth. His words were gentle enough, but his whole appearance was more like that of a wild beast than a man. Nora looked full at him. The candle lit up her pale face; her dark-blue eyes were full of courage; a lock of her black hair had got loose in the exertion of rowing, and had fallen partly over her shoulder and neck. "Faix, then, you might be the Banshee herself," said Andy, bending forward and looking at her attentively.
"If the moon comes out again we may see the Banshee," whispered Nora. "Can we not go farther into the cave? Time is flying." She took her watch from her pocket and looked at the hour. It was already past eleven o'clock.
"The storm will be over in good time," said the man. "Do you want to get the gleam of moonlight in the crack of the inner cave? Is that what you're afther, missy?"
"Yes," said Nora.
"Well, you stay quiet; you'll reach it right enough."
"Nora wants to see the Banshee, Andy," called out Biddy. "Oh, what a flash! It nearly blinded me."
"The rain will soon be on us, and then the worst of the storm will be past," said the man.
Mike uttered a scream; the lightning was now forked and intensely blue. It flashed into every cranny in the cave, showing the barnacles on the roof, the little bits of fern, the strange stalactites. After the flash had passed, the darkness which followed was so intense that the light of the dim candle could scarcely be seen. Presently the rain thundered down upon the bare rock above with a tremendous sound; there were great hailstones; the thunder became less frequent, the lightning less vivid. In a little more than half an hour the fierce storm had swept on to other quarters.
"Now, then, we can go forward," said Andy. He took up his oars. "You had best stay quiet, missies; just sit there in the bottom of the boat, and let me push ahead."
"Then I will hold the candle," said Nora.
"Right you are, miss."
She took it into her cold fingers. Her heart was beating high with suppressed excitement; she had never felt a keener pleasure in her life. If only she might see the Banshee, and implore the spirit's intercession for the fortunes of her house!
The man rowed on carefully, winding round corners and avoiding many dangers. At last they came bump upon some rocks.
"Now, then," he said, "we can't go a step farther."
"But we must," said Nora. "We have not reached the chasm in the rock. We must."
"We dare not, miss; the boat hasn't water enough to float her."
"Well, then, I shall wade there. How far on is the chasm?"
"Oh, Nora! Nora! you won't be so mad as to go alone?" called out Biddy.
"I shan't be a scrap afraid," said Nora.
"But there's water up to your knees; you dare not do it," said Biddy.
"Yes, I dare; and the tide is going down—is it not?"
"It will be down a good bit in half an hour," said the man, "and we'll be stranded here as like as not. These are bad rocks when the tide is low; we must turn and get out of this, miss, in a quarter of an hour at the farthest."
"Oh, I could just do it in a quarter of an hour," said Nora.
She jumped up, and the next moment had sprung out of the boat into the water, which nearly reached up to her knees.
"Oh, Nora! Nora! you'll be lost; you'll slip and fall in that awful darkness, and we'll never see you again," said Biddy, with a cry of terror.
"No, no; let her go," said Andy. "There ain't no fear, miss; you have but to go straight on, holding your candle and avoiding the rocks to your left, and you'll come to the opening. Be as quick as you can, Miss Nora; be as quick as you can."
His voice had a queer note in it. Nora gave him a look of gratitude, and proceeded on her dangerous journey. Her one fear was that the candle might go out; the flame flickered as the air got less good; the hot grease scalded her fingers; but suddenly a breeze of fresher air reached her, and warned her that she was approaching the aperture. There came a little puff of wind, and the next moment the brave girl found herself in total darkness. The candle had gone out. Just at that instant she heard, or fancied she heard, a splash behind her in the water. There was nothing for it now but to go forward. She resolved not to be terrified. Perhaps it was a water-rat; perhaps it was the Banshee. Her heart beat high; still she had no fear. She was going to plead for her father. What girl would be terrified with such a cause in view? She walked slowly and carefully on, and at last the fresher air was followed by a welcome gleam of light; she was approaching the opening. The next moment she had found it. She stood nearly up to her knees in the water; the shaft of moonlight was piercing down into the cave. Nora went and stood in the moonlight. The hole at the top was little more than a foot in width; there was a chasm, a jagged chasm, through which the light came. She could see a bit of cloudless sky, and the cold moonlight fell all over her.
"Oh, Banshee!—Lady Spirit who belongs to our house, come and speak to me," cried the girl. "Come from your home in the rock and give me a word of comfort. A dark time is near, and we implore your help. Come, come, Banshee—it is the O'Shanaghgans who want you. It is Nora O'Shanaghgan who calls you now."
The sound of a laugh came from the darkness behind her, and the next instant the startled girl saw the big form of Andy Neil approaching.
"Don't you be frightened, Miss Nora," he said. "I aint the Banshee, but I am as good. Faix, now, I want to say something to you. I have come here for the purpose. There! don't be frightened. I won't hurt ye—not I; but I want yez to promise me something."
"What is that?" said Nora.
"I have come here for the purpose. She aint no good." He indicated with a motion of his thumb the distant form of Biddy within the dark recess of the cave.
"Does Miss Murphy know you have followed me?" said Nora.
"No, she don't know it; she's in the dark. There's the little lad Mike will look after her. She won't do nothing until we go back."
"Oh, I did want to see the Banshee!"
"The Banshee may come or not," said the man; "but I have my message to yez, and it is this: If you don't get Squire O'Shanaghgan to let me keep my little bit of land, and to see that I aint evicted, why, I'll—you're a bonny lass, you're as purty a young lady as I ever set eyes on, but I'll drownd yez, deep down here in this hole. No one will ever know; they'll think you has fallen and got drowned without no help from me. Yes, I'll do it—yes, I will—unless you promises that Squire O'Shanaghgan shan't evict me. If I go out, why, you goes out first. Now, you'll do it; you'll swear that you'll do it? You'll leave no stone unturned. You'll get 'em to leave me my cabin where I was born, and the childer was born, and where the wife died, or I'll drownd yez deep down here in the Banshee's hole. Look!" said the man as the moon nickered on a deep pool of water; "they say there is no bottom to it. Just one shlip, and over you goes, and nobody will ever see Nora O'Shanaghgan again."
"I'm not going to be frightened; you wouldn't do it, Andy," said the girl.
"Wouldn't I just? You think that I'd be afraid?"
"I don't think so. I am sure you are afraid of nothing."
"Then why shouldn't I do it?"
"Because you wouldn't be so bad, not to an innocent girl who never harmed you."
"Oh! wouldn't I just? Ain't I a-stharving, and aint the childer stharving, and why should they turn us out of our bit of a cabin? Swear you'll do it; swear you won't have me evicted; you has got to promise."
"I wouldn't evict you—never, never!" said Nora. "Oh, never!" she added, tears, not of fright, but of pity, filling her eyes. "But how can I control my father?"
"That's for you to see to, missy; I must go back now, or we'll none of us leave this cave alive. But you'll just shlip into that water, and you'll never be heard of again unless you promises. I'll go back; they none of 'em will know I followed yez. You'll be drowned here in the deep pool, and I'll go back to the boat, or you promises and we both goes back."
"But, Andy, what am I to promise?"
"That you won't have me evicted. You say solemn here: 'Andrew Neil, I would rather die myself or have my tongue cut out, and may the Holy Mother cast me from her presence forever, and may the evil spirits take me, if I don't save you, Andy.' You has to say that."
"No, I won't," said Nora with sudden spirit. "I am not afraid. I'll do my very, very best for you; but I won't say words like those."
The man looked at her attentively.
"I was a little frightened at first," continued Nora; "but I am not now. I would rather you pushed me into that pool, I would rather sink and die, than take an awful vow like that. I won't take it. I'll do my very best to save you, but I won't make a vow."
"Faix, then, miss, it's you that has the courage; but now if I let yez off this time, will ye do yer best?"
"Yes, I'll do my best."
"If yer don't, bonny as you are, and the light of somebody's eyes, you'll go out of the world. But, come, I trust yez, and we must be turning back."
The man took the matches from his pocket, struck one, and lit the candle. Then, Andy going in front of Nora, they both turned in the direction where the boat was waiting for them.
It was between two and three in the morning when the girls found themselves back again in the desolate mansion of Cronane. Biddy had left a window open; they had easily got in by it and gone up to Biddy's big room on the first floor. They were to sleep together in Biddy's small bed. Personally, discomforts did not affect them; they had never been accustomed to luxury, and rather liked the sense of hardship than otherwise.
"I brought up a bit of supper beforehand," said Biddy. "I am real hungry. What do you say to cold bacon and taters—eh? I went down to the larder and got a good few early this morning. I put them in the cupboard in a brown bowl with a plate over it. You're hungry—aren't you, Norrie?"
"No, not very," answered Nora.
"What's come to you, you're so quiet? You have lost all your spirit. I thought we would have a real rollicking time over our supper, laughing and talking, and telling our adventures. Oh! it was awful in that cave; and when you were away talking to the lady Banshee I did have a time of it. I thought that awful Andy was going to murder me. I had a sort of feeling that he was getting closer and closer, and I clutched hold of little Mike. I think he was a bit surprised; I'll give him a penny to-morrow, poor gossoon. But aren't you hungry, and won't you laugh, and shan't we have a jolly spree?"
"Oh, I shall be very glad to eat something," said Nora; "and I am a little cold, too. I took a chill standing so long in that icy water."
"Oh, dear, oh, dear! it's the rheumatics you'll be getting, and then you'll lose your beautiful straight figure. I must rub your legs. There, sit on the bed and I'll begin."
Nora submitted to Biddy's ministrations. The room was lit by a small dip candle, which was placed in an old tin candlestick on the mantelpiece.
"Dear, dear! the light will be coming in no time, and we can quench the glim then," said Biddy. "I've got to be careful about candles. We're precious short of everything at Cronane just now. We're as poor as church mice; it's horrid to be so desperately poor as that. But, hurrah for the cold taters and bacon! We'll have a right good meal. That will warm you up; and I have a little potheen in a black bottle, too. I'll put some water to it and you shall have a drink."
"I never touch it," said Nora, shuddering.
"But you must tonight, or you'll catch your death of cold. There, the best thing you can do is to get right into bed. Why, you're shivering, and your teeth are chattering. It's a fine state Mrs. O'Shanaghgan will be in tomorrow when you go back to her."
"I must not get ill, Biddy; that would never do," said Nora, pulling herself together with an effort. "Yes, I'll get into bed; and I'll take a little of your potheen—very, very weak, if you'll mix it for me—and I'll have some of the bacon and potatoes. Oh! I would eat anything rather than be ill. I never was really ill in my life; but now, of all times, it would never do."
"Well, then, here you go. Tumble into bed. I'll pile the blankets on you. Now, isn't that better?"
Biddy bustled, intent on hospitality. She propped Nora up with pillows, pulled a great rug over her shoulders, and heaped on more and more blankets, which she pulled expeditiously from under the bed. "They always stay here in the summer," said Biddy. "That's to keep them aired; and now they're coming in very handy. You have got four doubled on you now; that makes eight. I should think you'd soon be warm enough."
"I expect I shall soon be too hot," said Nora; "but this is very nice."
She sipped the potheen, ate a little bacon and cold potatoes, and presently declared herself well again.
"Oh, I am perfectly all right!" she said; "it was coming home in the boat in my wet things. I wish I had taken a pair of sculls again; then I wouldn't even have been cold."
"Now you'll tell me," said Biddy, who sat on the edge of the bed munching great chunks of bacon and eating her cold potatoes with extreme relish. "Oh! it's hungry I am; but I want to hear all about the lady Banshee. Did she come? Did you see her, Nora?"
"No, she didn't come," said Nora very shortly.
"Didn't come? But they say she never fails when the moon is at the full. She rises up out of that pool—the bottomless pool it is called—and she floats over the water and waves her hand. It's awful to see her if you don't belong to her; but to those who belong to her she is tender and sweet, like a mother, they say; and her breath is like honey, and her kiss the sweetest you ever got in all your life. You mean to say you didn't see her? Why, Nora, what has come to you? You're trembling again."
"I cannot tell you, Biddy; don't ask me any more. I didn't see the Banshee. It was very, very cold standing up to my knees in the water. I suppose I did wrong to go; but that's done and over now. Oh, I am so tired and sleepy! Do get into bed, Biddy, and let us have what little rest we can."
Early the next morning Nora returned to O'Shanaghgan. All trace of ill effects had vanished under Biddy's prompt treatment. She had lain under her eight blankets until she found them intolerable, had then tossed most of them off, and fallen into deep slumber. In the morning she looked much as usual; but no entreaties on the part of Biddy, joined in very heartily by Squire Murphy and also by Mrs. Murphy, could induce her to prolong her visit.
"It's a message I'll take over myself to your father if you'll but stay, Nora," said the Squire.
"No, no; I must really go home," answered Nora.
"It's too fine you are for us, Nora, and that's the truth; and don't go for to be denying it," said Mrs. Murphy.
"No; I hope I may never be too fine for my real friends," said Nora a little sadly. "I must go back. I believe I am wanted at home."
"You're a very conceited colleen; there's no girl that can't be spared from home sometimes," said Mrs. Murphy. "I thought you would help Biddy and me to pick black currants. There are quarts and quarts of 'em in the garden, and the maids can't do it by themselves, poor things. Well, Biddy, you have got to help me today."
"Oh, mammy, I just can't," answered Biddy. "I'm due down at the shore, and I want to go a bit of the way back with Nora. You can't expect me to help you today, mammy."
"There she is, Nora—there she is!" exclaimed the good lady, her face growing red and her eyes flashing fire; "not a bit of good, not worth her keep, I tell her. Why shouldn't she stay at home and help her mother? Do you hear me, Squire Murphy? Give your orders to the girl; tell her to stay at home and help her mother."
"Ah, don't be bothering me," said Squire Murphy. "It's out I'm going now. I have enough on my own shoulders without attending to the tittle-tattle of women."
He rose from the table, and the next moment had left the room.
"Dear, dear! there are bad times ahead for poor Old Ireland," said Mrs. Murphy. "Children don't obey their parents; husbands don't respect their wives; it's a queer state of the country. When I was young, and lived at my own home in Tipperary, we had full and plenty. There was a bite and a sup for every stranger who came to the door, and no one talked of money, nor thought of it neither. The land yielded a good crop, and the potatoes—oh, dear! oh, dear! that was before the famine. The famine brought us a lot of bad luck, that it did."
"But the potatoes have been much better the last few years, and this year they say we're going to have a splendid crop," said Nora. "But I must go now, Mrs. Murphy. Thank you so much for asking me."
"You're looking a bit pale; but you're a beautiful girl," said the good woman admiringly. "I'd give a lot if Biddy could change places with you—that is, in appearance, I mean. She's not a credit to anybody, with her bumpy forehead and her cocked nose, and her rude ways to her mother."
"Mammy, I really cannot help the way I am made," said Biddy; "and as to staying in this lovely day picking black currants and making jam, and staining my fingers, it's not to be thought of. Come along out, Nora. If you must be off back to O'Shanaghgan, I mean to claim the last few moments of your stay here."
The girls spent the morning together, and early in the afternoon Nora returned to O'Shanaghgan. Terence met her as she was driving down the avenue.
"How late you are!" he said; "and you have got great black shadows under your eyes. You know, of course, that I have to catch the early train in the morning?"
"To be sure I do, Terry; and it is for that very reason I have come back so punctually. I want to pack your things my own self."
"Ah, that's a good girl. You'll find most of them laid out on the bed. Be sure you see that all my handkerchiefs are there—two dozen—and all marked with my initials."
"I never knew you had so many."
"Yes; mother gave me a dozen at Christmas, and I have not used them yet. I shall want every bit of decent clothing I possess for my visit to my rich Uncle Hartrick."
"How is mother, Terence?"
"Mother? Quite well, I suppose; she is fretting a bit at my going; you'll have to comfort her. The place is very rough for her just now."
"I don't see that it is any rougher than it has ever been," said Nora a little fiercely. "You're always running down the place, Terry."
"Well, I can't help it. I hate to see things going to the dogs," said the young man. He turned on his heel, called a small fox-terrier, who went by the name of Snap, to follow him, and went away in the direction of the shore.
Nora whipped up her pony and drove on to the house. Here she was greeted by her father. He was standing on the steps; and, coming down, he lifted her bodily out of the dog-cart, strained her to his heart, and looked full into her eyes.
"Ah, Light o' the Morning, I have missed you," he said, and gave a great sigh.
The girl nestled up close to him. She was trembling with excess of feeling.
"And I have missed you," she answered. "How is the mother?"
"I suppose she is all right, Nora; but there, upon my word, she does vex me sometimes. Take the horse to the stables, and don't stand staring there, Peter Jones." The Squire said these latter words on account of the fixed stare of a pair of bright black eyes like sloes in the head of the little chap who had brought the trap for Nora. He whipped up the pony, turned briskly round, and drove away.
"Come out for a bit with me round the grounds, Nora. It's vexed I am, sometimes; I feel I cannot stand things. I wish my lady would not have all those fine airs. But there, I have no right to talk against your mother to you, child; and of course she is your mother, and I am desperately proud of her. There never was her like for beauty and stateliness; but sometimes she tries me."
"Oh! I know, father; I know. But let's go round and look at the new calf and the colt. We can spare an hour—can we not?"
"Yes; come along quick, Nora," answered the Squire, all smiles and jokes once more. "The mother doesn't know you have come back, and we can have a pleasant hour to ourselves."
THE SQUIRE'S TROUBLE.
Nora and her father went slowly down a shady walk, which led in the direction of the shore. Soon they found themselves in a hay-field. The crop here was not particularly good. The hay had been spoiled by rains, which had soaked down on the lands a fortnight ago. It was stunted in height, and in some parts had that impoverished appearance which is so painful to the heart of the good farmer.
Squire O'Shanaghgan, notwithstanding his somewhat careless ways, was really a capital farmer. He had the best interests of the land at heart, and did his utmost to get profit out of his many acres. He now shook his head over the hay-crop.
"It's just like all the rest, Norrie—everything going to ruin—the whole place going to the dogs; and yet—and yet, colleen, it's about the sweetest bit of earth in all God's world. I wouldn't give O'Shanaghgan for the grandest place in the whole of England; and I told your lady-mother so this morning."
"Why did you say it, father? Had mother been—"
"Oh, nothing, child—nothing; the old grumbles. But it's her way, poor dear; she can't help herself; she was born so. It's not to be expected that she who was brought up in that prim land over yonder, where everything is cut and dry, and no one ever thinks of managing anything but by the rule of three, would take to our wild ways. But there, Norrie, it's the freedom of the life that suits me; when I am up and away on Black Bess or on Monarch, I don't think there is a happier fellow in the world. But there, when I come face to face with money, why, I'm bothered—I'm bothered entirely, child."
"Father," said Nora, "won't you tell me what is worrying you?"
"How do you know I am worried about anything, colleen?"
"How do I know, father?" answered Nora a little playfully. She turned and faced him. "I know," she said; "that is enough; you are worried. What is it?"
The Squire looked at her attentively. He was much the taller of the two, and his furrowed face seemed to the girl, as she looked up at him, like a great rock rising above her. She was wont to sun herself in his smile, and to look to him always as a sure refuge in any perplexity. She did not love anyone in the whole world as she loved her father. His manliness appealed to her; his generous ways suited her; but, above all these things, he was her father; he was Irish to his backbone, and so was she.
"You must tell me," she said. "Something is troubling you, and Nora has to know."
"Ah, my Light o' the Morning! what would I do without you?" answered the Squire.
"Prove that you trust me," said Nora, "and tell me what worries you."
"Well, Nora, you cannot understand; and yet if you could it would be a relief to unburden my mind. But you know nothing about mortgages—do you, little woman?"
"More than you think," said Nora. "I am not a child—I am nearly seventeen; and I have not lived at O'Shanaghgan all my life for nothing. Of course we are poor! I don't know that I want to be rich."
"I'll tell you what I want," said the Squire; "I want to forget that there is such a thing as money. If it were not for money I would say to myself, 'There's not a better lot than mine.' What air we have here!" He opened his mouth and took in a great breath of the pure Atlantic breezes. "What a place it is! Look at the beauty of it! Look round, Norrie, and see for yourself; the mountains over there; and the water rolling up almost to our doors; and the grand roar of the waves in our ears; and those trees yonder; and this field with the sun on it; and the house, though it is a bit of a barrack, yet it is where my forebears were born. Oh, it's the best place on earth; it's O'Shanaghgan, and it's mine! There, Nora, there; I can't stand it!"
The Squire dashed his hand to his brow. Nora looked up at him; she was feeling the exposure and excitement of last night. Her pallor suddenly attracted his attention.
"Why, what's the matter with you, colleen?" he said. "Are you well—are you sure you're well?"
"Absolutely, perfectly well, father. Go on—tell me all."
"Well, you know, child, when I came in for the estate it was not to say free."
"What does that mean, father?"
"It was my father before me—your grandfather—the best hunter in the county. He could take his bottle of port and never turn a hair; and he rode to hounds! God bless you, Nora! I wish you could have seen your grandfather riding to hounds. It was a sight to remember. Well, he died—God bless him!—and there were difficulties. Before he died those difficulties began, and he mortgaged some of the outer fields and Knock Robin Farm—the best farm on the whole estate; but I didn't think anything of that. I thought I could redeem it; but somehow, child, somehow rents have been going down; the poor folk can't pay, and I'm the last to press them; and things have got worse and worse. I had a tight time of it five years ago; I was all but done for. It was partly the fact of the famine; we none of us ever got over that—none of us in this part of Ireland, and many of the people went away. Half the cabins were deserted. There's half a mile of 'em down yonder; every single one had a dead man or woman in it at the time of the famine, and now they're empty. Well of course, you know all about that?"
"Oh, yes, father; Hannah has told me of the famine many, many times."
"To be sure—to be sure; but it is a dark subject, and not fit for a pretty young thing like you. But there, let me go on. It was five years ago I mortgaged some of the place, a good bit, to my old friend Dan Murphy. He lent me ten thousand pounds—not a penny more, I assure you. It just tided me over, and I thought, of course, I'd pay him back, interest and all, by easy stages. It seemed so easy to mortgage the place to Murphy, and there was nothing else to be done."
The Squire had been walking slowly; now he stopped, dropped Nora's hand from his arm, and faced her.
"It seemed so easy to mortgage the land to Dan Murphy," he said, dropping his voice, "so very easy, and that money was so handy, and I thought—"
"Yes, father?" said Nora in a voice of fear. "You said these words before. Go on—it was so easy. Well?"
"Well, a month ago, child, I got a letter from Murphy's lawyer in Dublin, to say that the money must be paid up, or they would foreclose."
"Foreclose, father. What is that?"
"Take possession, child—take possession."
"A month ago you got that letter? They would take possession—possession of the land you have mortgaged. Does that mean that it would belong to Squire Murphy, father?"
"So I thought, my dear colleen, and I didn't fret much. The fact is, I put the letter in the fire and forgot it. It was only three days ago that I got another letter to know what I meant to do. I was given three months to pay in, and if I didn't pay up the whole ten thousand, with the five years' interest, they'd foreclose. I hadn't paid that, Nora; I hadn't paid a penny of it; and what with interest and compound interest, it mounted to a good round sum. Dan charged me six per cent, on the money; but there, you don't understand figures, child, and your pretty head shan't be worried. Anyhow, I was to pay it all up within the three months—I, who haven't even fifty pounds in the bank. It was a bit of a staggerer."
"I understand," said Nora; "and that was why you went the day before yesterday to see Squire Murphy. Of course, he'll give you time; though, now I come to think of it, he is very poor himself."
"He is that," said the Squire. "I don't blame him—not a bit."
"But what will you do, father?"
"I must think. It is a bit of a blow, my child, and I don't quite see my way. But I am sure to, before the time comes; and I have got three months."