"The witching hour," thought the girl. "The hour when the Banshee walks abroad. I wonder if I shall see her. I should like to see her. Did she hear me when I called to her in the cave? Would she help me if she came to my rescue now? She belongs to us; she is our own Banshee; she has belonged to our family for many, many generations."
Nora thought these thoughts; but then the feeling that Someone else who never fails those who trust Him was also watching her during this silent hour came to her with a sense of comfort. She could hear her father turning once or twice in the creaky old wooden bed. She was glad to feel that, unknown to him, she was his guardian angel. She began to think about the future, and almost to forget Andy and the possible and very great peril of the present, when, shortly before the hour of one, all her senses were preternaturally excited by the sound of a footfall. It was a very soft footfall—the noise made by a bare foot. Nora heard it just where the shadow was deepest. She stood up now; she knew that, from her present position, the one who was making this dead sort of heavy sound could not possibly see her. She waited, her breath coming hard and fast. For a minute, or perhaps more, there was again absolute and complete silence. The night was a breathless one; there was not a sound abroad; overhead the sky was of an inky blue-black, the stars were shining gloriously, and the moon was growing brighter and more clear, and more nearly approaching her meridian each moment. The girl stood with her hand pressed against her beating heart; she had flung aside her little red handkerchief, and her hair had fallen loose and was tumbling over her shoulders; she raised her other hand to her left ear to listen more intently—she was in the attitude of one about to spring.
Again there came the sound which she expected, and which, now that it had arrived, caused her heart to beat no longer with fear, but with a sort of wild exultation. Her suspicions had been right—the danger was real; her father's most precious life was in peril. The steps came quicker and more quick; they approached the other window of the barn. This window lay in complete shadow. Nora now stepped out of her hiding place, and, going with two or three quick strides down the yard, waited within a foot or two of the man, who now proceeded to lift himself up by the window ledge preparatory to opening the barn window. With the aid of a claspknife he could very easily push back the quaint and imperfect fastening; then it was but to push in the glass, and he could enter the barn. He sat on the window ledge with his back to Nora. His huge, gaunt form looked larger than ever, intensified now by the light of the moon. He breathed quickly; his breathing proclaimed that he himself was in physical suffering.
"Andy," said Nora in a low, very low whisper.
But this low tone was as startling to the madman on the window as though a pistol shot had been sounded in his ears.
"Be the powers!" he said, and he tumbled so quickly off the window sill that Nora herself held out her hand to help him. Then he turned fiercely and faced the girl. She saw the light of madness gleaming in his sunken eyes; his wild face looked more cadaverous than ever; his great, skinny, long hand shook. He raised it as if to fell the girl to the ground, but paused to look in her face, and then his hand hung feebly to his side.
Nora had enacted all this scene beforehand to herself; she now thrust into Andy's face, within an inch or two of his nose, a great lump of bread and a slab of cold pie.
"Before you do anything more, eat," she said; "eat quickly; make no noise."
It was as impossible for the famished man to resist the good and tempting food as it would have been impossible for a needle to resist the influence of a powerful magnet. He grasped the bread, thrust the knife into his wretched shirt, and, tearing the bread in fragments, began to stuff it into his mouth. For a couple of minutes there was no sound but that of the starved creature tearing the bread and feeding himself. When he had slightly satisfied the first cravings of his starved body Nora took his hand.
"You have not had enough yet," she said. "You have fasted long, and are very hungry; there is more where this came from."
She took his hand quite unresistingly, and led him round to the entrance of the barn.
"I am up," she said, "but no one else. No one else knows of this. You have come without a gun?"
"I have a knife instead," he said. His eye glittered strangely.
"Give me your knife," said the girl. "I will give you food in exchange for it."
The famished creature began to gibber now in the most horrible manner; he pointed to his breast and uttered a laugh.
"Laugh again, and I will call those who will soon put a stop to your wild and terrible purposes, Andy," said the girl, "Here's food—fruit, jelly, bread. You shall have them all—all, when you give me that knife."
The man looked at the food, and now his eyes softened. They became full not only of rapture, but also of laughter. He gave a low guttural sound, sank down on the ground, and held out both his hands imploringly for some of the nourishment.
"The knife," said Nora.
He thrust his hands into his bosom and held the knife out to her. It was a huge clasp knife, and Nora noticed with a shudder that it had all the appearance of having been newly sharpened. The moment she got it she put it in her pocket, and then invited the man to feed. He sat now quite humbly. Nora helped him to pie. She had already taken the precaution to hide the knife which Mrs. Shaw had supplied her with. The man ate and ate, until his consuming hunger was satisfied. Nora now gave him a very little of the brandy mixed with water. He lay back at last, exhausted and also satisfied.
"It's wake I am, it's wake I am—it's wake I am entoirely," said he. "Why are you so good to me, Miss Nora? It was to take the life of the Squire I was afther to-night."
"I knew that," said Nora, "and I thought I would prevent you. Why did you not meet me this evening down by the shore?"
The miserable creature now raised his hand and pushed back a gray lock of unkempt hair from his forehead.
"Why, then," he said, "it was bothered I was entoirely. I knew there was something I had got to do. It was waker and waker I was getting, for I did not touch bite nor sup since I saw you last, except a morsel of a cold pitatie; and there was not much of the nourishment in that; and as the night came, I could not think of anything except to keep me word and have me victory."
"Well, you have had it," said Nora.
"What do you mane now, missie?"
"You have conquered yourself; that is the best victory of all. But come, you made a bargain with me last night, and I am prepared to keep it. I went down to the shore to tell you that I would do what you wanted me to do. The cabin is ready on Slieve Nagorna; we have made it fairly comfortable for you; and I will do better—yes, I will try to do better by and by. I will speak to my father when he is strong enough. Go to Slieve Nagorna now, and you will find the old cot in which you were born. You can sleep there, and—and I—I will see that you are not interfered with."
"The old cot in which I was born," said Neil very slowly. "The old cot, and I'll see it again. Is it a-joking me you are, Miss Nora?"
"Would I joke with you just now, Andy? Would I?"
"I know it's saft you are making me. There was a lump of ice in me; but, somehow, it's melted. It's the food and your bonny face, and yer ways. But do you know that it was your father I wanted to kill—t'ould Squire? There, I have said it!"
"I know—and I have saved him," answered Nora. "But come, he may hear us speaking; he would wonder. I do not want him to know anything of this night. When he is stronger I will plead with him. Come, Andy, come; your home is ready for you. Go back to it."
The man tottered to his feet, and began to stagger across the barn.
"Stay! you are not strong enough," said the girl. "Come outside the yard, here; come with me."
She walked across the yard, reached the little postern gate, and opened it.
"Come out and wait," she said in a mysterious voice. "You cannot walk to Slieve Nagorna, and yet you must get there; but I will get Angus to take you."
"Angus! ay, he is a true Irish boy. Aw, I'd trust him."
"You well may; he is a broth of a boy," said Nora. "Sit there. I will soon be back with you."
She shut Andy out, bolting the little gate. The man heard the bolt being drawn, but did not move; he had not the slightest fear but that Nora would keep her word. She ran across the yard and opened the door of the barn at the farther end. Angus was already awake; he heard her light step.
"Is it me you're wanting, Miss Nora?"
"Angus, all is well," she said. "What I wanted to do I have succeeded in doing. It is Andy Neil who is without; he is broken down and is very weak. Get the long cart and take him to the foot of Slieve Nagorna, help him up the mountain, and see him into the old cot where he was born. Good-night, Angus, and God bless you."
Nora returned to her own bedroom. She unlocked the door and let herself in. Without waiting even to undress, she flung herself on the bed, curled herself up, and went off into dreamless slumber. When she woke again it was broad daylight, and Molly was standing over her.
"Why, Nora, you have lain undressed all night! What—what has happened?"
"Do not ask me," said Nora. "Do not ask me. I have done what I wanted to do, and I am thankful."
"And you won't really tell me?"
"No, I won't. I cannot ever. There is more to attend to, Molly; you and I have got to go to Slieve Nagorna immediately after breakfast."
Molly did not ask anything further.
"I brought your hot water," she said. "You do not want any of the grand English servants to see you look like this."
"What a dear old thing you are!" said Nora. "I am so grateful to you."
She got up, took off her clothes, indulged in a hot bath, and came down to breakfast looking exactly as if she had spent an ordinary night. Mrs. O'Shanaghgan was a little more fretful than ever, and told Nora that her conduct was making her mother quite ridiculous in the neighborhood.
"I met those remarkably nice people, the Setons of Seton Court, yesterday," said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan—"charming English people—and they asked me if it was really true that my husband, the owner of Castle O'Shanaghgan, was sleeping in a barn."
"And what did you answer, mother?" asked Nora, her dark-blue eyes bright with sudden fun.
"Well, my dear, I made the best of it. I could not deny such a patent fact. I said that the eccentricities of Irish squires were proverbial. But you can imagine, my dear Nora, my mortification as I had to make this admission. If this sort of thing goes on I shall ask your uncle to let the place, and allow us all to live in England."
"Oh, come, mother," said her daughter. "You ought to be thankful this morning—you ought to be. Oh, mother! do give me a loving kiss. It is so long, so long since you have done so, and somehow I am tired, mother."
"Tired!" said Mrs. O'Shanaghgan, alarmed and surprised by the new tone in Nora's voice. "You look tired. How black those shadows are under your eyes! and you have lost some of your color. There! of course I will kiss you, and I hope I am thankful, for we certainly have had wonderful mercies since your dear Uncle George came over and delivered us all. But what do you mean by special thankfulness this morning?"
"Never mind, mother," said Nora. "Only do be thankful, do thank God for His mercies; and oh, mother, do give me that kiss!"
"There, child! of course you shall have it."
Mrs. O'Shanaghgan pressed her lips lightly to Nora's cheek.
"Now eat your breakfast," she said. "These eggs are quite fresh, and the honey was bought only yesterday—you know you are fond of honey—and these hot cakes are made in a new and particularly nice way. Eat plenty, Nora, and do, my dear, try to restrain your emotions. It is quite terrible what wear and tear you give yourself over these feelings. It is really, my dear girl, unladylike; and let me tell you another thing, that when you lose your fresh wild-rose color, you will lose the greater part of your beauty. Dear me! it will not stay long with you if you excite yourself about every hand's turn in the ridiculous way you are doing."
Nora did not say any more. She sat down to the breakfast table. Was her mother right? Was she indeed exciting herself over every hand's turn, and was that thing which had happened last night—which, now that it was over, caused her heart to beat a trifle too fast, and brought that tired, that very tired feeling into her sensitive frame—was that indeed but a trifling thing? Thank God—oh, thank God—she had been in time!
Soon after breakfast Nora and Molly started once more for Slieve Nagorna. They went on the outside car this time, and Nora found her strength and courage returning as she handled the reins and urged Black Bess to speed. They presently reached their destination. Nora fastened up the horse as she had done on the previous day, and the girls began to climb the mountain.
"You must not be afraid when you see Andy," said Nora. "He was very weak last night, and will in all probability be in his house. I am going to arrange to have provisions sent to him every day. He will stay there now that he has got back again."
"But how has he got back again? You will remember you never told me what happened last night."
"And you must not ask me, Molly. What happened last night can never be told by me to any human being. Only Angus knows something of it; and Angus will not tell anyone else."
"And you were frightened? You look, Nora, as if you had gone through a great deal."
"I went through more than anyone will ever know," said Nora, "but I am very thankful."
The girls had now reached the old cabin. The tarpaulin was over the roof, but there was no smoke issuing from the hole.
"I wonder he did not light his fire," said Nora in an anxious voice. "Will you go in with me, Molly, or shall I go alone?"
"I'll go in with you," said Molly stoutly. "If you are not afraid, neither will I be."
"I afraid now?" said Nora, with a smile. "Come, Molly, I hope the poor creature is not very ill."
Both girls entered the cabin. The tarpaulin had been so contrived that a piece hung over, and formed a temporary door. Nora now pushed it aside, and they both stepped into the miserable cabin. Andy was lying on the straw; the basket of provisions had not yet been touched, nor was the fire lit. Andy lay very still and quiet on the straw. Nora went up to him; his eyes were shut, and his head was slightly turned round, so that she could not at first get a proper glimpse of his face. She went on her knees, then presently touched his forehead with her own slim hand, calling his name softly at the same time. There was no answer—there would never be an answer again, for the wild Irishman was dead.
"I'M A HAPPY MAN!"
It was just before Christmas, and the preparations for the festive season were great at Castle O'Shanaghgan. The Squire was quite well again. Once more he walked all over his estate; once more he talked to his tenants; once more he joked and laughed with the other squires of the neighborhood. To a certain extent he had grown accustomed to the grand house with its grand furniture; to the terrible late dinner, at which he stoutly declined to appear in evening dress; to the English servants who knew none of his ways. He began to bear with these things, for Light o' the Morning, as he called his beloved Nora, was always by his side, and at night he could cast off the yoke which was so burdensome, and do what he liked in the barn. At Mrs. O'Shanaghgan's earnest request this barn was now rendered a tolerably comfortable bedroom; the walls had been papered, and the worst of the draughts excluded. A huge fireplace had been built out at one end, and the Squire did not object at all to a large turf fire on a cold night; but the old bedstead from Cronane still occupied its old place of honor in the best position in the room, the little deal table was destitute of cloth or ornament of any kind, and the tarpaulin on the floor was not rendered more luxurious by the presence of rugs.
"Rugs indeed!" said the Squire, snorting almost like a wild beast when his wife ventured to suggest a few of these comforts. "It is tripping me up you'd be? Rugs indeed! I know better."
But compared to its condition when the Squire first occupied it, the barn was now a fairly comfortable bedroom, and Squire Murphy, Squire Fitzgerald, Squire Terence Malone, and the other squires of the neighborhood had many a good smoke there, and many a hearty laugh, as they said, quite "unbeknownst" to the English lady and her grand friends. And Nora, Molly, and even Biddy Murphy often shared in these festive times, laughing at the best jokes, and adding sundry witticisms on their own account.
It was now, however, Christmas Eve, and Mrs. O'Shanaghgan's nearest English relatives were coming to spend the festive season at the Castle. Mrs. Hartrick, for the first time in her life, was to find herself in Old Ireland. Linda was also accompanying her mother, and Terence O'Shanaghgan was coming back for a brief visit to the home which one day would be his. Terence was now permanently settled in his uncle's office, and was likely to make an excellent man of business. Mr. Hartrick was glad of this, for he would much prefer the O'Shanaghgans to have money of their own in the future, rather than to depend on him to keep up the old place. Inwardly the Squire was fretting and fuming a good bit at Mr. Hartrick really owning Castle O'Shanaghgan.
"I must say, after all's said and done, the man is a gentleman," he remarked to his daughter; "but it frets me sore, Nora, that I should hold the place under him."
"It's better, surely, than not having it at all," answered Nora.
"Yes, be the powers! it is that," said the Squire; "but when I say so, it's about all. But I'll own the truth to you now, Nora: when they were smothering me up in that dreadful bedroom before you came, mavourneen, I almost wished that I had sold the place out and out."
"Oh, but, father, that time is long over," answered Nora; "and I believe that, after all, it will be good for the poor people round here that you should stay with them, and that there should be plenty of money to make their cabins comfortable, and to give them a chance in life."
"If I thought that, there'd not be another grumble out of me," said the Squire. "I declare to you, Nora, I'd even put on that abominable dinner suit which your lady mother ordered from the best Dublin tailors. My word! but it's cramped and fussed I feel in it. But I'd put it on, and do more than that, for the sake of the poor souls who have too little of this world's goods."
"Then, father, do believe that it is so," said Nora; and now she put one of her soft arms round his neck, and raised herself on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. "Believe that it is so, for this morning I went round to the people, and in every cabin there was a bit of bacon, and a half-sack of potatoes, and fagots, and a pile of turf; and in every cabin they were blessing you, father; they think that you have sent them these Christmas gifts."
"Ah, ah!" said the Squire, "it's sore to me that I have not done it; but I must say it's thoughtful of George Hartrick—very thoughtful. I am obliged to him—I cannot say more. Did you tell me the things were sent to every cabin, Nora—all over the place, alannah?"
"Every cabin, father," answered his daughter.
"Then, that being the case, I'll truss myself up tonight. I will truly. Mortal man couldn't do more."
The preparations, not only outside but inside, for the arrival of the English family were going on with vigor. Pretty suites of rooms were being put into their best holiday dress for the visitors. Huge fires blazed merrily all over the house. Hothouse flowers were in profusion; hothouse fruit graced the table. The great hall quite shone with firelight and the gleam of dark old oak. Mrs. O'Shanaghgan dressed herself in her most regal black velvet dress for this auspicious occasion; and Nora, Molly, and even Biddy Murphy, all in white, danced excitedly in the hall. For Biddy Murphy, at Nora's special suggestion, had been asked to spend Christmas at the Castle. It was truly good to see her. Notwithstanding her celestial nose and very wide mouth, it would have been difficult to have looked at a happier face than hers. And, Irish as Biddy was, she had got the knack of coming round Mrs. O'Shanaghgan. She did this by her simple and undisguised admiration.
"Oh, Mrs. O'Shanaghgan!" Biddy would cry, "it is the very most lovely thing I have ever clapped eyes on. I never saw anything so magnificent as this room. It's fairyland; the whole place is fairyland;" and as Biddy spoke her eyes would twinkle, and her big mouth would open, showing her immaculate white teeth. So much did she contrive to win over Mrs. O'Shanaghgan that that lady presented her with a soft white muslin dress for the present occasion. If Biddy was proud before, she was almost rampant with pleasure now. She twirled round, and gazed at herself in the long mirrors which had been inserted in the hall between the oak panels.
"Why, then, it's proud me ancestors, the old Irish kings, would be of me now," she was even heard to say.
But, all things being ready, the time at last approached when the tired travelers would arrive. At the eleventh hour there had come a great surprise to Nora and Molly; for Mrs. Hartrick and Linda were bringing Stephanotie with them. How this came to pass was more than either girl could possibly conjecture; but they both felt that it was the final crown of their happiness.
"Can I ever forget," said Nora, "that but for Stephanotie lending us that money I should not have been able to run away to Ireland, and my dear, dearest father might not now have been alive?"
But the sound of wheels was at last heard without.
"Come, girleens, and let's give them a proper Irish welcome," said the Squire, standing on the steps of the old house.
Nora ran to him, and he put his arm round her waist.
"Now then, Nora, as the carriage comes up, you help me with the big Irish cheer. Hip, hip, hurrah! and Caed Mille a Faitha. Now then, let every one who has got a drop of Irish blood in him or her raise the old cheer."
Poor gentle English Mrs. Hartrick turned quite pale when she heard these sounds; but Mr. Hartrick was already beginning to understand his Irish relatives; and as to Stephanotie, she sprang from the carriage, rushed up the steps, and thrust a huge box of bon-bons into Squire O'Shanaghgan's face.
"I am an American girl," she said; "but I guess that, whether one is Irish or American, one likes a right-down good sweetheart. Have a bon-bon, Squire O'Shanaghgan, for I guess that you are the man to enjoy it."
"Why then, my girl, I'd like one very much," said the Squire; "but don't bother me for a bit, for I have to speak to my English relatives."
"Oh, come along in, Stephanotie, do," said Molly. "I see that you are just as eccentric and as great a darling as ever."
"I guess I'm not likely to change," answered Stephanotie. "I was born with a love of bon-bons, and I'll keep it to the end of the chapter."
But now Mrs. Hartrick and Mrs. O'Shanaghgan had met. The two English ladies immediately began to understand each other. Mrs. O'Shanaghgan, without a word, slipped her hand inside her sister-in-law's arm, and they walked slowly across the magnificent hall and up the wide stairs to the palatial bedroom got ready for the traveler.
Then the fun and excitement downstairs became fast and furious. The Squire clapped his brother-in-law, George Hartrick, on the shoulder; the Squire laughed; the Squire very nearly hallooed. Terence looked round him in undisguised amazement.
"I would not have known the old place," he said, turning to Nora.
Nora gave a quick sigh.
"Where is my mother?" said the lad then.
"She has gone upstairs with Aunt Grace; but run after her, Terry, do," said his sister.
Terence gave another glance round, in which pride for the home where he was born kindled once more in his dark eyes. He then rushed up the stairs three steps at a time.
"Why, then," said the Squire, "it's cramped and bothered I am in these clothes. What possesses people to make Merry-andrews of themselves night after night beats my comprehension. In my old velveteen jacket and knee-breeches I am a man—in this tomfoolery I do not feel as good as my own footman."
"You look very well in your dinner dress all the same, O'Shanaghgan," said Mr. Hartrick. And he added, glancing from Nora to her father, "I am glad to see you quite recovered."
"Ah! it's she has done it," said the Squire, drawing Nora forward and pressing her close to his heart. "She's a little witch. She has done fine things for me, and I am a happy man to-night. Yes, I will own to it now, I'm a happy man; and perhaps there are more things in the world than we Irish people know of. Since I have my barn to sleep in I can bear the house, and I am much obliged to you, George—much obliged to you. But, all the same, it's downright I'd have hated you, when you altered this old place past knowing, had it not been for my little girl, Light o' the Morning, as I call her."