It might be that the young man was a ravenous wolf, but his manners were not wolfish. Had Mrs. O’Hara been a princess, supreme in her own rights, young Neville could not have treated her or her daughter with more respect. At first Kate had wondered at him, but had said but little. She had listened to him, as he talked to her mother and the priest about the cliffs and the birds and the seals he had shot, and she had felt that it was this, something like this, that was needed to make life so sweet that as yet there need be no longing, no thought, for eternity. It was not that all at once she loved him, but she felt that he was a thing to love. His very appearance on the cliff, and the power of thinking of him when he was gone, for a while banished all tedium from her life. “Why should you shoot the poor gulls?” That was the first question she asked him; and she asked it hardly in tenderness to the birds, but because with the unconscious cunning of her sex she understood that tenderness in a woman is a charm in the eyes of a man.
“Only because it is so difficult to get at them,” said Fred. “I believe there is no other reason — except that one must shoot something.”
“But why must you?” asked Mrs. O’Hara.
“To justify one’s guns. A man takes to shooting as a matter of course. It’s a kind of institution. There ain’t any tigers, and so we shoot birds. And in this part of the world there ain’t any pheasants, and so we shoot sea-gulls.”
“Excellently argued,” said the priest.
“Or rather one don’t, for it’s impossible to get at them. But I’ll tell you what, Father Marty,”— Neville had already assumed the fashion of calling the priest by his familiar priestly name, as strangers do much more readily than they who belong to the country — “I’ll tell you what, Father Marty — I’ve shot one of the finest seals I ever saw, and if Morony can get him at low water, I’ll send the skin up to Mrs. O’Hara.”
“And send the oil to me,” said the priest. “There’s some use in shooting a seal. But you can do nothing with those birds — unless you get enough of their feathers to make a bed.”
This was in October, and before the end of November Fred Neville was, after a fashion, intimate at the cottage. He had never broken bread at Mrs. O’Hara’s table; nor, to tell the truth, had any outspoken, clearly intelligible word of love been uttered by him to the girl. But he had been seen with them often enough, and the story had become sufficiently current at Liscannor to make Lady Mary Quin think that she was justified in sending her bad news to her friend Lady Scroope. This she did not do till Fred had been induced, with some difficulty, to pass a night at Castle Quin. Lady Mary had not scrupled to ask a question about Miss O’Hara, and had thought the answer very unsatisfactory. “I don’t know what makes them live there, I’m sure. I should have thought you would have known that,” replied Neville, in answer to her question.
“They are perfect mysteries to us,” said Lady Mary.
“I think that Miss O’Hara is the prettiest girl I ever saw in my life,” said Fred boldly, “and I should say the handsomest woman, if it were not that there may be a question between her and her mother.”
“You are enthusiastic,” said Lady Mary Quin, and after that the letter to Scroope was written.
In the meantime the seal-skin was cured — not perhaps in the very best fashion, and was sent up to Miss O’Hara, with Mr. Neville’s compliments. The skin of a seal that has been shot by the man and not purchased is a present that any lady may receive from any gentleman. The most prudent mamma that ever watched over her dovecote with Argus eyes, permitting no touch of gallantry to come near it, could hardly insist that a seal-skin in the rough should be sent back to the donor. Mrs. O’Hara was by no means that most prudent mamma, and made, not only the seal-skin, but the donor also welcome. Must it not be that by some chance advent such as this that the change must be effected in her girl’s life, should any change ever be made? And her girl was good. Why should she fear for her? The man had been brought there by her only friend, the priest, and why should she fear him? And yet she did fear; and though her face was never clouded when her girl spoke of the new comer, though she always mentioned Captain Neville’s name as though she herself liked the man, though she even was gracious to him when he shewed himself near the cottage — still there was a deep dread upon her when her eyes rested upon him, when her thoughts flew to him. Men are wolves to women, and utterly merciless when feeding high their lust. ’Twas thus her own thoughts shaped themselves, though she never uttered a syllable to her daughter in disparagement of the man. This was the girl’s chance. Was she to rob her of it? And yet, of all her duties, was not the duty of protecting her girl the highest and the dearest that she owned? If the man meant well by her girl, she would wash his feet with her hair, kiss the hem of his garments, and love the spot on which she had first seen him stand like a young sea-god. But if evil — if he meant evil to her girl, if he should do evil to her Kate — then she knew that there was so much of the tiger within her bosom as would serve to rend him limb from limb. With such thoughts as these she had hardly ever left them together. Nor had such leaving together seemed to be desired by them. As for Kate she certainly would have shunned it. She thought of Fred Neville during all her waking moments, and dreamed of him at night. His coming had certainly been to her as the coming of a god. Though he did not appear on the cliffs above once or twice a week, and had done so but for a few weeks, his presence had altered the whole tenour of her life. She never asked her mother now whether it was to be always like this. There was a freshness about her life which her mother understood at once. She was full of play, reading less than was her wont, but still with no sense of tedium. Of the man in his absence she spoke but seldom, and when his name was on her lips she would jest with it — as though the coming of a young embryo lord to shoot gulls on their coast was quite a joke. The seal-skin which he had given her was very dear to her, and she was at no pains to hide her liking; but of the man as a lover she had never seemed to think.
Nor did she think of him as a lover. It is not by such thinking that love grows. Nor did she ever tell herself that while he was there, coming on one day and telling them that his boat would be again there on another, life was blessed to her, and that, therefore, when he should have left them, her life would be accursed to her. She knew nothing of all this. But yet she thought of him, and dreamed of him, and her young head was full of little plans with every one of which he was connected.
And it may almost be said that Fred Neville was as innocent in the matter as was the girl. It is true, indeed, that men are merciless as wolves to women — that they become so, taught by circumstances and trained by years; but the young man who begins by meaning to be a wolf must be bad indeed. Fred Neville had no such meaning. On his behalf it must be acknowledged that he had no meaning whatever when he came again and again to Ardkill. Had he examined himself in the matter he would have declared that he liked the mother quite as well as the daughter. When Lady Mary Quin had thrown at him her very blunt arrow he had defended himself on that plea. Accident, and the spirit of adventure, had thrust these ladies in his path, and no doubt he liked them the better because they did not live as other people lived. Their solitude, the close vicinity of the ocean, the feeling that in meeting them none of the ordinary conventional usages of society were needed, the wildness and the strangeness of the scene, all had charms which he admitted to himself. And he knew that the girl was very lovely. Of course he said so to himself and to others. To take delight in beauty is assumed to be the nature of a young man, and this young man was not one to wish to differ from others in that respect. But when he went back to spend his Christmas at Scroope, he had never told even himself that he intended to be her lover.
“Good-bye, Mrs. O’Hara,” he said, a day or two before he left Ennis.
“So you’re going?”
“Oh yes, I’m off. The orders from home are imperative. One has to cut one’s lump of Christmas beef and also one’s lump of Christmas pudding. It is our family religion, you know.”
“What a happiness to have a family to visit!”
“It’s all very well, I suppose. I don’t grumble. Only it’s a bore going away, somehow.”
“You are coming back to Ennis?” asked Kate.
“Coming back; — I should think so. Barney Morony wouldn’t be quite so quiet if I was not coming back. I’m to dine with Father Marty at Liscannor on the l5th of January, to meet another priest from Milltown Malbay — the best fellow in the world he says.”
“That’s Father Creech; — not half such a good fellow, Mr. Neville, as Father Marty himself.”
“He couldn’t be better. However, I shall be here then, and if I have any luck you shall have another skin of the same size by that time.” Then he shook hands with them both, and there was a feeling that the time would be blank till he should be again there in his sailor’s jacket.
When the second week in January had come Mrs. O’Hara heard that the gallant young officer of the 20th was back in Ennis, and she well remembered that he had told her of his intention to dine with the priest. On the Sunday she saw Mr. Marty after mass, and managed to have a few words with him on the road while Kate returned to the cottage alone. “So your friend Mr. Neville has come back to Ennis,” she said.
“I didn’t know that he had come. He promised to dine with me on Thursday — only I think nothing of promises from these young fellows.”
“He told me he was to be with you.”
“More power to him. He’ll be welcome. I’m getting to be a very ould man, Misthress O’Hara; but I’m not so ould but I like to have the young ones near me.”
“It is pleasant to see a bright face like his.”
“That’s thrue for you, Misthress O’Hara. I like to see ’em bright and ganial. I don’t know that I ever shot so much as a sparrow, meself, but I love to hear them talk of their shootings, and huntings, and the like of that. I’ve taken a fancy to that boy, and he might do pretty much as he plazes wid me.”
“And I too have taken a fancy to him, Father Marty.”
“Shure and how could you help it?”
“But he mustn’t do as he pleases with me.” Father Marty looked up into her face as though he did not understand her. “If I were alone, as you are, I could afford, like you, to indulge in the pleasure of a bright face. Only in that case he would not care to let me see it.”
“Bedad thin, Misthress O’Hara, I don’t know a fairer face to look on in all Corcomroe than your own — that is when you’re not in your tantrums, Misthress O’Hara.” The priest was a privileged person, and could say what he liked to his friend; and she understood that a priest might say without fault what would be very faulty if it came from any one else.
“I’m in earnest now, Father Marty. What shall we do if our darling Kate thinks of this young man more than is good for her?” Father Marty raised his hat and began to scratch his head. “If you like to look at the fair face of a handsome lad —”
“I do thin, Misthress O’Hara.”
“Must not she like it also?”
“I’ll go bail she likes it,” said the priest.
“And what will come next?”
“I’ll tell you what it is, Misthress O’Hara. Would you want to keep her from even seeing a man at all?”
“It’s not the way to make them happy, nor yet safe. If it’s to be that way wid her, she’d better be a nun all out; and I’d be far from proposing that to your Kate.”
“She is hardly fit for so holy a life.”
“And why should she? I niver like seeing too many of ’em going that way, and them that are prittiest are the last I’d send there. But if not a nun, it stands to reason she must take chance with the rest of ’em. She’s been too much shut up already. Let her keep her heart till he asks her for it; but if he does ask her, why shouldn’t she be his wife? How many of them young officers take Irish wives home with ’em every year. Only for them, our beauties wouldn’t have a chance.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14