Page images
PDF
EPUB

circle of mould, seemingly well tended, and enclosed by a row of sharp-pointed stones. The old woman, upon reaching it, bent over it with a sort of feverish greediness. Then, turning to Catherine, she asked her if she would not like to have a try "for nothing, in consideration of her relationship to the Captain ?" Catherine, at first, not catching the meaning, asked what it was she should try. “They are mandrakes, or better known as 'earthmen.' I have collected them during many years, and now cultivate them for the wandering monks and pilgrims, who buy them from me. But, do try! the charm works best at moonlight."

Catherine kept repeating to herself the name the old hag had given them, as if trying to recall the signification attached to it. She remembered having had the properties of the strange plant explained to her. It grew deep into the earth, the roots were knotted and of a fleshy appearance, in the shape of the human form. Its odour, when strongly inhaled, caused a stupifying sensation. It was very much esteemed by the ancients, who imputed a powerful virtue to it, and attested, that when it was torn out of the earth, it gave forth unnatural and fearful sounds, which were known to affect those who heard them to such a degree that they were, for the moment, almost bereft of reason. Catherine remembered all this in a moment, but she was not aware of what the old woman now assured her—that they generally grew under the spot where murder had been committed; and by this fact she knew this must be the spot where a priest had been assassinated years before. She had found, upon digging up the earth, a root that the spade could not move, but when she put her hand to pull it up, it yielded at once to her touch, and with a noise so strange and unearthly, that it appalled even her, who was rarely terrified at anything. The next day she took it up to Mr. Maitland, of the Big House, who, upon examining it, partly explained to her its qualities, and promised to give her money for

H

any others she might chance to find. Her best specimens, she assured Catherine, she had collected from under the gallows of the county jail. The charm which she, with the faith of an old woman, attached to the plant was this: If a man had any one who was dear to him, threatened with danger, he was to tear one out of the ground, repeating at the same time his friend's name; then, if it gave out the usual sound, he might know that his friend was doomed; if not, that he was in no danger.

Catherine was tempted to doubt what she, in her own mind, imagined to be an old woman's dotage, but more to gratify the whims of the latter than her own belief about it, she consented, and, stooping down over the plants, she caught hold of one, and pulled it with all her strength. It yielded to her efforts, yet without any sound being heard by her. Curiosity induced her to inspect the plant, as she held it in her hand, under the rays of the moon. She was singularly struck with its resemblance to the human shape, in a distorted form, and in miniature; and so she threw it quickly from her, much to the annoyance of the old woman, who grumbled, as she carefully picked it up and folded it in a dirty handkerchief, that she slowly drew from her pocket.

Catherine, having observed how angry she had become, thought to pacify her by pulling up another, and, as she did so, pronounced a name well known to her. A sharp, moaning cry accompanied the action, such as an animal might utter when suffering intense agony. She let it go, with a cry of alarm, and jumped up, as if to run away from the ominous spot, when suddenly she remembered the purpose that had brought her, and, turning to the woman, begged her to say no more on the subject, but to take her at once to Captain Sweeny. The old hag seemed rather to enjoy the discomfiture of the young girl, grinning in a sardonic way, as she led her back again into the hut.

Arriving at the before-mentioned heap of straw, where the boy, with a pig for a companion, still lay snoring, she pushed back some of it with her stick, and knocked upon the ground three times.

The earth suddenly receded, leaving an aperture large enough for a man to pass through. Catherine's curiosity prompted her to look down into it, but all was dark and still, and only the sharp raw air rising out of it, told her that it was excavated.

The old woman put a whistle to her lips, and blew a prolonged clear tone. After the space of a minute it was answered by a similar one, and soon after a light was seen approaching them, which disclosed to view a flight of steps hewn in the rocks.

The next moment a well-known voice met Catherine's ear, while a dark, handsome face was raised towards her. It was Pierce O'Neile himself, who bid her not to be alarmed, but to trust herself to him, while he assisted her to descend the uneven and slippery way. He then turned to the old woman, whom he called “granny,” to say that, in all probability, the young lady would return the other way, and would therefore be able to dispense with any further service from her that night. She made a deep bob, as he addressed her, and then replaced the flag-stone, which showed no traces of having been disturbed.

CHAPTER XIII.

66

“Oh, teach me to love thee, to feel what thou art,
Till, fill'd with the one sacred image, my heart

Shall all other passions disown;
Like some pure temple that shines apart,

Reserved for thy worship alone.”
" In joy and in sorrow, through praise and through blame,
Thus still let me, living and dying the same,
In thy service bloom and decay."

MOORE.

The lantern that Pierce held in his hand shed but a dim light over their way. It appeared to Catherine that they were ascending, although almost imperceptibly, from the zig-zag path which had been so ingeniously contrived. After some time they reached a large level shelf of rock, at one end of which Catherine could distinguish, by a lamp hanging from above, a long, flat block of stone, evidently serving as a table; for around it were seated about a dozen stalwart men, or rather youths, some upon blocks of wood and others upon broken casks, drinking and chattering away, unmindful of the precarious and reckless life they were leading. Their costume, though of rather coarse materials, was still extremely picturesque. They all wore high boots, black velveteen breeches, with short jackets of the same material, confined round the waist by a broad leather belt, with innumerable bright green shamrocks interlaced all over it. From this belt was suspended a brace of pistols, inlaid with burnished steel, that flashed in the dim light. The youths were bareheaded, with long hair hanging loosely about their faces, which gave to their appearance a wildness and a stamp, characteristic of their vocation. Catherine noticed with great surprise that most of them had the aspect of gentlemen. She caught the refrain of a song that then, and many years after, was the delight of nursery maids and the peasantry. It ran thus:

“Oh! bold Captain Sweeny, oh !” She shuddered as her ear caught the name in a bacchanalian song, in praise of her cousin's marauding life. Pierce marked the movement, yet said nothing, only an expression of pain passed over his face. The band, upon perceiving their captain and his fair companion, set up a loud and prolonged cheer, that vibrated and swelled through the arched vault. He waved his hand in token of acknowledgment, and then a deep silence succeeded the noisy revel of the moment before.

Pierce now drew Catherine towards the other end of the cavern, that was partly concealed by a curtain of dark baize. He drew it aside, and passed under it with her, closing it after him. Here, a lamp was also suspended from above. A large cask stood in the centre, upon which were strewn loose papers, together with pipes of various sizes and devices. In one corner was a mattress, with a large riding-cloak and a mask thrown upon it. The former he took up, and folding it into a sort of cushion, placed it in a shelving part of the rock, making Catherine sit down upon it. In a passive manner she allowed him to do so, looking around meanwhile with a bewildered air, as if she were dreaming the events of the last few days. Pierce sat down opposite to her, and waited for her to speak first. She looked at him long and fixedly, then said,

“Do you know, Pierce, that if your father had even the faintest suspicion as to your present position, I am sure it would be fatal to him. I think he entertains the secret hope that one day you will return and make all good again. You were so young and inexperienced at the time you

She dared not say what was on her tongue, but began again—"But this humiliating, unlawful—"

He stopped her before she could finish the sentence:

« PreviousContinue »