I entered the clean-swept kitchen, where the lads and lasses were all gathered, and took a seat of honor in the corner, near old Mickey himself. Jig, jig went the fiddle, and delighted eyes were watching Lanty O’Brien, the strolling dance-master, as he stamped out a jig in the half-door that had been placed in the middle of the earthen floor. My eyes traveled all round the circle of beaming faces, till they reached the player. A woman was seated on a chair at the bottom of the kitchen with a yellow fiddle under her chin, playing away with all her might. She was an ordinary looking peasant woman, with a kindly weather-beaten face. Little wisps of stiff, red hair stuck out round her forehead; her eyes followed the gyrations of Lanty’s feet, and her whole body kept time with her music.
Old Mickey Flynn saw my interested gaze. “That’s Mary Brady,” said he, “she’s a fine hand at the fiddle. Her father was the greatest fiddler in the province of Connaught; troth you might have heard tell of blind Brady, the fiddler. He was famed over everywhere. The quality often used to go to his house, up there on the mountain, to hear him play; you could stand to your knees in snow listening to him. But he was the drunken rascal too. And blind as he was, mind you, he could put the comet her on all the girls, and in the end he married the purtiest wan in the countryside. That was Mary’s mother.”
I listened interestedly. Lanty O’Brien had finished his exhibition of step-dancing, and the boys and girls were taking their places on the floor. The player, to give them more room, moved her chair nearer my direction, and I met the smiling gaze of her eyes, which held a wonderful, dreamy light.
“Her father taught her the fiddle?”
“Yes, and she’s been playin’ since she was the height of my knee. Only for her, now, what would the youngsters do for a dance? But they daren’t send round the hat for her. She’d never play for them again, she’s so proud.”
I was eager to hear more.
“She’s not married?”
“Oh, no, there was no one she’d take; though, like her father, she had a way with her. And plenty of boys wanted her. But when any of them would want her to be his housekeeper, she’d laugh in his face.”
“Do you think,” she’d say, ‘I’d lave my fine house on the mountain side, where I’ve nothing to do but tend myself and herd the sheep to marry ye and grow old in no time?’ The boys left her alone after a while. She lives by herself at the side of the mountain beyond--you’ve often passed her house. It’s where her father lived when he wasn’t trampin’ around with the fiddle. She has a patch of grass there for a few sheep, and she does have the finest lambs in the country. She’s a great woman, is Mary, but she’s curious. Her father was a curious man.”
“I think sometimes she’s not all there,” said Mickey’s daughter-in-law, who was standing near.
Mickey turned to her. “Arragh, let no body hear you sayin’ that. Didn’t old Father Pat--God be good to him--say she had more wisdom than himself. She comes from a knowledgeable family, too, on her mother’s side. Two cures have descended to her; she has the cure of the sprain and the cure of the rose. Troth, Molly Brady would be missed if she died, and that’s more than can be said of all the women.” There was a pause in the dancing. Some of the boys went out, to cool themselves, presumably, after the violent exercise. Mary let down the fiddle.
“Mary, will you play some of them slow tunes your father used to play, till the young lady hears them?” Mickey requested her.
With a smile she raised the yellow fiddle to her chin again, and played some of the simple old airs in a way I had never heard before. I listened with delight. The wailing airs came out clear and sweet, unadorned and bald in their simplicity. Then she branched off into a melody that was different; little rollicking notes chased each other, the music rang out gay like laughter. It struck me with a wonderful familiarity. Then I remembered suddenly I had heard it a fortnight before in a crowded hall, where a great violinist had played his own compositions to an enthusiastic audience.
I went towards her. “Where did you hear that?” I asked her when she had fimished. “I heard a great man play that. He composed it himself.”
She looked at me in surprise. “My father made that tune himself. ‘Twas him I learned it from.”
“I heard it played quite recently by a great violinist, Paul O’Donnell.”
“Paul!” Her face became transfigured. “Have you seen Paul, our Paul, Paul O’Donnell? Is he a great fiddler?”
“Och,” cried Mickey Flynn, “can it be Paul O’Donnell the lady manes? The gosson that used to lade your father around; the gosson the gentleman took away?”
Mary’s eyes were fastened on my face. “Aye, it’s Paul,” she said. “No other. Who else would it be?”
“This gentleman,” I said in amazement, “is a great musician; he plays and composes himself.”
“Och, it’s surely the same Paul O’Donnell,” said Mickey. “He used to lade ould Owen Brady about the country. He was the son of a neighbor, he explained to me, and all his people were dead, so Owen Brady took him round with him because he had a hankerin’ after the fiddle. He was with him for years, till he was a grown lad of twenty. Then a gentleman, who was stopping’ at the castle, heard him play, and he took him away with him to get him trained. He said he would be great. Aye, it’s surely the same Paul He used to have the clothes off his back tore climbin’ trees and stalin’ apples. And ye say he’s a great man now?”
A curious group had gathered around. I remembered hearing that the great violinist had been a peasant lad from a western village.
“Yes, he’s a great man,” I answered, “and it must be the same Paul.”
Mary’s face was all illumined. Soon the dancing began again, and she plied the bow merrily, but her eyes seldom left my face. The “spree” broke up early, and when I rose to take my steps home towards the cottage where I was stopping, Mary rose eagerly too.
“I will lave you home,” she said, “I’m goin’ that way, and though it’s moonlight, ye might be lonesome by yerself.”
She carefully put the fiddle under her shawl, and we walked away together.
It was more to herself than to me she said at last: “Paul will soon be comin’ home now. Is he a great fiddler?” she asked me.
“One of the greatest in the world.”
The smile deepened in her eyes. “Yes,” she went on, “the gentleman said he would be a great fiddler. Paul was always a great fiddler. Even my father said that, and it’s more nor he ever said of me, though he taught us both together. Paul’s a long time gone now, eighteen years nest month, but the gentleman told us he would be a long time away. He said he would have to go out to foreign parts to study, But Paul said no matter how long he’d have to stay, he’d come back in the end.”
“He said he would come back?” I guessed what was coming next.
“Yes, them were his last words when I left him at the train. Paul and me were goin’ to be married before he went away, though no one knew it but ourselves.” When the gentleman came and coaxed him away, Paul wanted to marry me before he’d go; but the gentleman said it would be better to wait till he’d come back.” She laughed a little. “Paul was afraid I’d marry some of the other boys while he was away. I’ll have to whitewash the house to-morrow. He might come any day now.”
I felt a choking sensation in my throat. Before my eyes there rose the vision of Paul O’Donnell, courted, flattered, lionized by fashionable society. Then I looked at the woman before me, with freckled face, the strong frame, the toil-hardened hands. To her Paul O’Donnell was still the ragged boy who had wooed her eighteen years before; to her simple soul he remained the same.
I walked on beside her in silence till we came to her cottage. I went in with her. She hung up the fiddle and looked around the kitchen with a smile on her face. “I will begin the whitewashing early in the morning,” she said, as if to herself. Then she accompanied me over to the cottage I had rented for the summer.
When I entered I found a letter awaiting me. I felt as if I were about to watch the unveiling of a tragedy as I read: “You’ll have Paul O’Donnell, the violinist, quite close to you. Will Blake, whose place is near the village where you are, tells me he is going over to stop with him for a rest, as his health is broken down. It appears that Mr. O’Donnell was born somewhere in that neighborhood.”
A few days afterwards I was going down the mountain path, when the strains of a fiddle borne to me on the evening breeze drew me towards Mary’s cottage. I passed in. Mary was seated on a low stool playing away. When I entered she rose and came towards me, her face pale, the pupils of her eyes large and shining.
“Paul has come.” she said.
“I saw him; he did not see me. He was driving from the station with Master Will to the Castle. He’s a grand gentleman; but sure enough, it’s Paul. Lanty O’Brien showed me the paper yesterday where it said Paul was coming to stop with Master Will.” Her voice was anxious; there was a beseeching note in it as she said, “He will come soon now,” as if she was seeking assurance from me.
“He’s ill,” I said lamely. “He may not be able to come to you yet.” Her shining eyes seemed to pierce my soul.
“Yes,” she said, “he was very white and all muffled up. He looked as if he was in a decline--Paul that used to be so strong.”
Almost a week went by. The weather and my work had kept me indoors. Then one day, passing the Castle gate-house, I saw Paul O’Donnell, looking very white and thin, walking slowly down the avenue leaning on the arm of the daughter of the house. Their laughter reached me as I passed. With a dim foreboding I crossed to Mary’s cottage in the evening. The door was closed and no smoke rose from the chimney. I raised the latch and entered. Mary was sitting on a low stool near the empty hearth, her head bent on her hands. She was not conscious of my entrance until I went up to her and laid my hand on her shoulder. Then she turned her face up to me. It was white and drawn; her eyes had a strange look. I knew that from the dream she had dreamed for eighteen years, she had at last awakened.
“Did he come?”
Her answer came in slow, disconnected phrases.
“He did not come. He sent for me to-day. I went to the Castle. He was there with Miss Maud and Master Will. He was a grand gentleman--a grand gentleman. Paul became a grand gentleman. He was glad to see me. He said, only he was sick, he’d have come up to see me to the house. He talked of old times, and laughed and joked, and asked me why I never got married. He didn’t remember. Then he asked me to wish him and Miss Maud luck, because they were--”
I felt a blinding rush of tears to my eyes. I looked at the neat black dress, the little ribbon at the throat, at the stiff red hair that had been sleeked back over her head. Then my eyes wandered to the newly whitewashed walls.
She had dreamed her love-dream in her little mountain home for eighteen years. It had grown on her, and in the great simplicity of her soul she had never doubted the fulfillment. This was her awakening. After a while I left her alone. When I returned to the city a few days later, I felt that I had learned a great deal in that little village between the mountains and the sea.