The path which O'Connor followed was one of those quiet and pleasant by-roads which, in defiance of what are called improvements, are still to be discovered throughout Ireland here and there, in some unsuspected region, winding their green and sequestered ways through many a varied scene of rural beauty; and, unless when explored by some chance fisherman or tourist, unknown to all except the poor peasant to whose simple conveniences they minister.
Low and uneven embankments, overgrown by a thousand kinds of weeds and wild flowers and brushwood, marked the boundaries of this rustic pathway, but in so friendly a sort, and with so little jealousy or exclusion, that they seemed designed rather to lend a soft and sheltered resting-place to the tired traveller than to check the wayward excursions of the idle rambler into the merry fields and woodlands through which it wound. On either side the tall, hoary trees, like time-worn pillars, reared their grey, moss-grown trunks and arching branches, now but thinly clothed with the discoloured foliage of autumn, and casting their long shadows in the evening sun far over the sloping and unequal sward. The scene, the hour, and the loneliness of the place, would of themselves have been enough to induce a pensive train of thought; but, beyond the silence and seclusion, and the falling of the leaves in their eternal farewell, and all the other touching signs of nature's beautiful decay, there were deep in O'Connor's breast recollections and passions with which the scene before him was more nearly associated, than with the ordinary suggestions of fantastic melancholy.
At some distance from this road, and half hidden among the trees, there stood an old and extensive building, chiefly
p.15of deep red brick, presenting many and varied fronts and quaint gables, antique-fashioned casements, and whole groups of fantastic chimneys, sending up their thin curl of smoke into the still air, and glinting tall and red in the declining sun; while the dusky hue of the old bricks was every here and there concealed under rich mantles of dark, luxuriant ivy, which, in some parts of the structure, had not only mounted to the summits of the wall, but clambered, in rich profusion, over the steep roof, and even to the very chimney tops. This antique buildingrambling, massive, and picturesque in no ordinary degreemight well have attracted the observation of the passer-by, as it presented in succession, through the irregular vistas of the rich old timber, now one front, now another, alternately hidden and revealed as the point of observation was removed. But the eyes of O'Connor sought this ancient mansion, and dwelt upon its ever-varying aspects, as he pursued his way, with an interest more deep and absorbing than that of mere curiosity or admiration; and as he slowly followed the grass-grown road, a thousand emotions and remembrances came crowding upon his mind, impetuous, passionate, and wild, but all tinged with a melancholy which even the strong and sanguine heart of early manhood could not overcome. As the path proceeded, it became more closely sheltered by the wild bushes and trees, and its windings grew more wayward and frequent, when on a sudden, from behind a screen of old thorns which lay a little in advance, a noble dog, of the true old Irish wolf breed, came bounding towards him, with every token of joy and welcome.
Rover, Roverdown, boy, down, said the stranger, as the huge animal, in his boisterous greeting, leaped upon him again and again, flinging his massive paws upon his shoulders, and thrusting his cold nose into his bosomdown, Rover, down.
The first transport of welcome past, the noble dog waited to receive from his old friend some marks of recognition in return, and then, swinging his long tail from side to side, away he sprang, as if to carry the joyful tidings to the companion of his evening ramble.
O'Connor knew that some of those whom he should not have chosen to meet just then or there were probably within a stone's throw of the spot where he now stood, and for a moment he was strongly tempted to turn, and, if so it might be, unobserved to retrace his steps. The close screen of wild trees which overshadowed the road would have rendered this design easy of achievement; but while he was upon the point of turning to depart, a few notes of some wild and simple Irish melody, carelessly lilted by a voice of silvery sweetness, floated to his ear. Every cadence and vibration of that voice
p.16was to him enchantmenthe could not choose but pause. The sweet sounds were interrupted by a rustling among the withered leaves which strewed the ground. Again the fine old dog made his appearance, dashing joyously along the path towards him, and following in his wake, with slow and gentle steps, came a light and graceful female form. On her shoulders rested a short mantle of scarlet cloth; the hood was thrown partially backward, so as to leave the rich dark ringlets to float freely in the light breeze of evening; the faintest flush imaginable tinged the clear paleness of her cheek, giving to her exquisitely beautiful features a lustre, whose richness did not, however, subdue their habitual and tender melancholy. The moment the full dark eyes of the girl encountered
p.17O'Connor, the song died away upon her lipsthe colour fled from her cheeks, and as instantaneously the sudden paleness was succeeded by a blush of such depth and brilliancy as threw far into shade even the brightest imagery of poetic fancy.
Edmond! she exclaimed, in a tone so faint and low as scarcely to reach his ear, and which yet thrilled to his very heart.
Yes, Maryit is, indeed, Edmond O'Connor, answered he, passionately and mournfullycome, after long years of separation, over many a mile of sea and landunlooked-for, and, mayhap, unwished-forcome once more to see you, and, in seeing you, to be happy, were it but for a momentcome to tell you that he loves you fondly, passionately as evercome to ask you, dear, dear Mary, if you, too, are unchanged?
As he thus spoke, standing by her side, O'Connor gazed on the sad, sweet face of her he loved so well, and held that little hand, which he would have given worlds to call his own. The beautiful girl was too artless to disguise her agitation. She would have spoken, but the effort was vainthe tears gathered in her dark eyes, and fell faster and faster, till at length the fruitless struggle ceased, and she wept long and bitterly.
Oh! Edmond, said she, at length, raising her eyes sorrowfully and fondly to O'Connor's facewhat has called you hither? We two should hardly have met now or thus.
Dear Mary, answered he, with melancholy fervour, since last I held this loved hand, years have passed awaythree long years and morein which we two have never metin which you scarce have even heard of me. Mary, three years bring many changeschanges irreparable. Timewhich has, if it were possible, made you more beautiful even than when I saw you lastmay yet have altered earlier feelings, and turned your heart from me. Were it so, Mary, I would not seek to blame you. I am not so vainyour rankyour great attractionsyour surpassing beauty, must have won many admirersdrawn many suitors round you; and II, among all these, may well have been forgottenI, whose best merit is but in loving you beyond my life. I will not, thenI will not, Mary, ask if you love me still: but coming thus unbidden and unlooked-for, am I forgivenam I welcome, Mary?
The artless girl looked up in his face with such a beautiful smile of trust and love as told more in one brief moment than language could in volumes.
Yes, Mary, said O'Connor, reading that smile aright, with swelling heart and proud devotion; yes, Mary. I am rememberedyou are still my ownmy own: true, faithful,
p.18unchanged, in spite of years of time and leagues of separation; in spite of all!my true-hearted, my adored, my own!
He spoke; and in the fulness of their hearts they were both for a while silent, each gazing on the other in the rapt tenderness of long-tried lovein the deep, guileless joy of this chance meeting.
Hear me, he whispered, lower almost than the murmur of the breeze through the arching boughs above them, as if fearful that even a breath would trouble the still enchantment that held them spell-bound: hear me, for I have much to tell. The years that have passed since I spoke to you before have brought to me their store of good and ill, of sorrow and of hope. I have many things to tell you, Mary; much that gives me hopethe cheeriest hopeeven that of overcoming Sir Richard's opposition! Ay, Mary, reasonable hope; and why? Because I an no longer poor: an old friend of my father's, Mr. Audley, has taken me by the hand, adopted me, made me his heirthe heir to riches and possessions which even your father will allow to be considerablewhich he well may think enough to engage his prudence in favour of our union. In this hope, dearest, I am here. I daily expect the arrival of my generous friend and benefactor; and with him I will go to your father and urge my suit once more, and with God's blessing at last prevailbut hark! some one comes.
Even while he spoke, the lovers were startled by the sound of voices in gay colloquy, approaching along the quiet by-road on which they stood.
Leave me, Edmond, leave me, said the beautiful girl, with earnest entreaty; they must not see you with me now.
Farewell then, dearest, since it must be so, replied O'Connor, as he pressed her hand closely in his own; but meet me to-morrow eveningmeet me by the old gate in the beech-tree walk, at the hour when you used to walk there.Nay, refuse me not, Mary. Farewell, farewell till then! and so saying, before she had time to frame an answer, he turned from her, and was quickly lost among the trees and underwood which skirted the pathway.
In the speakers who approached, the young lady at once recognized her brother, Henry Ashwoode, and Emily Copland, her pretty cousin. The young man was handsome alike in face and figure, slightly made, and bearing in his carriage that indescribable air of aristocratic birth and pretension which sits not ungracefully upon a handsome person; his countenance, too, bore a striking resemblance to that of his sister, and, allowing for the difference of sex, resembled it as
p.19nearly as any countenance which had never expressed a passion but such as had its aim and origin alike in self, could do. He was dressed in the extreme of the prevailing fashion; and altogether his outward man was in all respects such as to justify his acknowledged pretensions to be considered one of the prettiest men in the then gay city of Dublin. The young lady who accompanied him was, in all points except in that of years, as unlike her cousin, Mary Ashwoode, as one pretty girl could well be to another. She was very fair; had a quick, clear eye, which carried in its glance something more than mere mirth or vivacity; an animated face, with, however, something of a bold, and at times even of a haughty expression. Laughing and chatting in light, careless gaiety, the youthful pair approached the spot where Mary Ashwoode stood.
So, so, fair sister, cried the young man, gaily, alone and musing, and doubtless melancholy. Shall we venture to approach her, Emily?
Women have keener eyes in small matters than men; and Miss Copland at a glance perceived her fair cousin's flushed cheek and embarrassed manner.
Angels and ministers of grace defend us! cried she; the girl has certainly seen a ghost or a dragoon officer.
Neither, I assure you, cousin, replied Miss Ashwoode, with an effort; my evening's ramble has not extended beyond this spot; and as yet I've seen no monster more alarming than my brother's new periwig.
The young man bowed.
Nay, nay, cried Miss Copland, but I must hear it. There certainly is some awful mystery at the bottom of all these conscious looks; but apropos of awful mysteries, continued she, turning to young Ashwoode, half in pity for Mary's increasing embarrassment; where is Major O'Leary? What has become of your amusing old uncle?
That's more than I can tell, replied the young man; I wash my hands of the scapegrace. I know nothing of him. I saw him for a moment in town this morning, and he promised, with a round dozen of oaths, to be out to dine with us to-day. Thus much you know, and thus much I know; for the rest, having sins enough of my own to carry, as I said before, I wash my hands of him and his.
Well, now remember, Henry, continued she, I make it a point with you to bring him out here to-morrow. In sober seriousness I can't get on without him. It is a melancholy and a terrible truth, but still one which I feel it my duty to speak boldly, that Major O'Leary is the only gallant and susceptible man in the family.
Monstrous assertion! exclaimed the young man; why,
p.20not to mention myself, the acknowledged pink and perfection of everything that is irresistible, have you not the perfect command of my worthy cousin, Arthur Blake?
Now don't put me in a passion, Henry, exclaimed the girl. How dare you mention that wretchthat irreclaimable, unredeemed fox-hunter. He never talks, nor thinks, nor dreams of anything but dogs and badgers, foxes and other vermin. I verily believe he never yet was seen off a horse's back, except sometimes in a stablehe is an absolute Irish centaur! And then his odious attempts at fineryhis elaborate, perverse vulgaritythe perpetual pinching and mincing of his words! An off-hand, shameless brogue I can endurea brogue that revels and riots, and defies the world like your uncle O'Leary's, I can respect and even admire but a brogue in a strait waistcoat
Well, well, rejoined the young man, laughing, though you may not find any sprout of the family tree, excepting Major O'Leary, worthy to contribute to your laudable requirements; yet surely you have a very fair catalogue of young and able-bodied gentlemen among our neighbours. What say you to young Lloydhe lives within a stone's throw. He is a most proper, pious, and punctual young gentleman; and would make, I doubt not, a most devout and exemplary Cavalier servente.
Worse and worse, cried the young lady despondingly; the most domestic, stupid, affectionate, invulnerable wretch. He never flirts out of his own family, and then, for charity I believe, with the oldest and ugliest. He is the very person for whose special case the rubric provided that no man shall marry his grandmother.
My fair cousin, replied the young man, laughing, I see you are hard to please. Meanwhile, sweet ladies both, let me remind you that the sun has just set; we must make our way homewardat least I must. By the way, can I do anything in town for you this evening, beyond a tender message to my reverend uncle?
Dear me, exclaimed Miss Copland, you have not passed an evening at home this age. What can you want, morning, noon, and night in that smoky, dirty town?
Why, the fact is, replied the young man, business must be done; I positively must attend two routs to-night.
Whose routswhat are they? inquired the young lady.
One is Mrs. Tresham's, the other Lady Stukely's.
I guessed that ugly old kinswoman of mine was at the bottom of it, exclaimed the young lady with great vivacity. Lady Stukelythat pompous, old, frightful goose!she has laid herself out to seduce you, Harry; but don't let that dismay you, for ten to one if you fall, she'll make an honest
p.21man of you in the end and marry you. Only think, Mary, what a sister you shall have, and the young lady laughed heartily, and then added, There are some excellent, worthy, abominable people, who seem made expressly to put one in a passionperpetual appeals to one's virtuous indignation. Now do, Henry, for goodness sake, if a matrimonial catastrophe must come, choose at least some nymph with less rouge and wrinkles than poor dear Lady Stukely.
Kind cousin, thyself shalt choose for me, answered the young man; but pray, suffer me to be at large for a year or two more. I would fain live and breathe a little, before I go down into the matrimonial pit and be no more seen. But let us mend our pace, the evening turns chill.
Thus chatting carelessly, they moved towards the large brick building which we have already described, embowered among the trees; where arrived, the young man forthwith applied himself to prepare for a night of dissipation, and the young ladies to get through a dull evening as best they might.
The two fair cousins sate in a large, old-fashioned drawing-room; the walls were covered with elaborately-wrought tapestry representing, in a manner sufficiently grim and alarming, certain scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses; a cheerful fire blazed in the capacious hearth; and the cumbrous mantelpiece was covered with those grotesque and monstrous china figures, misnamed ornaments, which were then beginning to find favour in the eyes of fashion. Abundance of richly carved furniture was disposed variously throughout the room. The young ladies sate by a small table on which lay some books and materials for work, placed near the fire. They occupied each one of those huge, high-backed, and well-stuffed chairs in which it is a mystery how our ancestors could sit and remain awake. Both were silently occupied with their own busy reflections; and it was not until the rapid clank of the horse's hoofs upon the pavement underneath the windows, as young Ashwoode started upon his night ride to the city, rose sharp and clear, that Miss Copland, waking from her reverie, exclaimed,
Well, sweet coz, were ever so woebegone and desolate a pair of damsels. The only available male creature in the establishment, with the exception of Sir Richard, who has actually gone to bed, has fairly turned his back upon us.
Dear Emily, replied her cousin, pray be serious. I wish to tell you what has passed this evening. You observed my confusion and agitation when you and Henry overtook me.
Why, to be sure I did, replied the young lady; and now, like an honest coz, you are going to tell me all about it. She drew her chair nearer as she spoke. Come, my dear, tell me everythingwhat was your discovery? Come, now,
p.22there's a good girl, do confess. So saying she threw one arm round her cousin's neck and laid the other in her lap, looking curiously into her face the while.
Oh! Emily, I have seen him! exclaimed Miss Ashwoode, with an effort.
Seen him!seen whom?old Nick, if I may judge from your looks. Whom have you seen, dear? eagerly inquired Miss Copland.
I have seen Edmond O'Connor, answered she.
Edmond O'Connor! repeated the girl in unfeigned surprise, why, I thought he was in France, eating frogs and dancing cotillons. What has brought him here?why, he'll be taken for a spy and executed on the spot. But seriously, can you conceive anything more rash and ill-judged than his coming over just now?
It is indeed, I greatly fear, very rash, replied the young lady; he is resolved to speak with my father once more.
And your father in such a precious ill-humour just at this precise moment, exclaimed Miss Copland. I never was so much afraid of Sir Richard as I have been for the last two days; he has been a perfect bruinbegging your pardon, my dear girl, but even you must admit, let filial piety and all the cardinal virtues say what they will, that whenever Sir Richard is recovering from a fit of the gout, he is nothing short of a perfect monster. I wager my diamond cross to a thimble, that he breaks the poor young man's head the moment he comes within reach of him. But jesting apart, I fear, my dear cousin, that my uncle is in no mood just now to listen to heroics.
A sharp knocking upon the floor immediately above the chamber in which the young ladies sate, interrupted the conference at this juncture.
There is my father's signal he wants me, exclaimed Miss Ashwoode, and rising as she spoke, without more ado she ran to render the required attendance.
Strange girl, exclaimed Miss Copland, as her cousin's step was heard ascending the stairs, strange girl! she is the veriest simpleton I ever yet encountered. All this fuss to marry a fellow who is, in plain words, little better than a beggarmana good-looking beggarman, to be sure, but still a beggar. Oh, Mary, simple Mary! I am very much tempted to despise youthere is certainly something wrong about you! I hate to see people without ambition enough, even to wish to keep their own natural position. The girl is full of nonsense; but what's that to me? she'll unlearn it all one day; but I'm much afraid, simple cousin, a little too late. Having thus soliloquized, she called her maid, and retired for the night to her chamber.