Once upon a time—only once, observe, she did not do it twice—a widow of th_ame of Maylands went, in a fit of moderate insanity, and took up her abode i_ lonely, tumble-down cottage in the west of Ireland.
Mrs Maylands was very poor. She was the widow of an English clergyman, who ha_eft her with a small family and the smallest income that was compatible wit_hat family’s maintenance. Hence the migration to Ireland, where she had bee_orn, and where she hoped to live economically.
The tumble-down cottage was near the sea, not far from a little bay name_owlin Cove. Though little it was a tremendous bay, with mighty cliff_andward, and jutting ledges on either side, and forbidding rocks at th_ntrance, which waged continual warfare with the great Atlantic billows tha_olled into it. The whole place suggested shipwreck and smugglers.
The small family of Mrs Maylands consisted of three babes—so their mothe_tyled them. The eldest babe, Mary—better known as May—was seventeen years o_ge, and dwelt in London, to which great city she had been tempted by a_lderly English cousin, Miss Sarah Lillycrop, who held out as baits a possibl_ituation and a hearty welcome.
The second babe, Philip, was verging on fifteen. Having kicked, crashed, an_mashed his way though an uproarious infancy and a stormy childhood, he ha_ecome a sedate, earnest, energetic boy, with a slight dash of humour in hi_pirit, and more than a dash of determination.
The third babe was still a baby. As it plays little or no part in our tale w_ismiss it with the remark that it was of the male sex, and was at once th_ope, fear, joy and anxiety of its distracted mother. So, too, we may dismis_iss Madge Stevens, a poor relation, who was worth her weight in gold to th_idow, inasmuch as she acted the part of general servant, nurse, mender of th_ousehold garments, and recipient of joys and sorrows, all of which duties sh_ulfilled for love, and for just shelter and sustenance sufficient to keep he_ffectionate spirit within her rather thin but well-favoured body.
Phil Maylands was a hero-worshipper. At the time when our tale opens h_orshipped a youth—the son of a retired naval officer,—who possessed at leas_ome of the qualities that are occasionally found in a hero. George Aspel wa_aring, genial, enthusiastic, tall, broad-shouldered, active, and young—abou_wenty. But George had a tendency to dissipation.
His father, who had recently died, had been addicted to what he styled good- fellowship and grog. Knowing his so-called weakness, Captain Aspel had sen_is boy to be brought up in the family of the Reverend James Maylands, bu_ome time before the death of that gentleman he had called him home to help t_anage the small farm with which he amused his declining years. George and hi_ather amused themselves with it to such an extent that they became bankrup_bout the time of the father’s death, and thus the son was left with the worl_efore him and nothing whatever in his pocket except a tobacco-pipe and _orkscrew.
One day Phil met George Aspel taking a ramble and joined him. These two live_ear to each other. Indeed, Mrs Maylands had been partly influenced in he_hoice of a residence by her desire to be near George.
It was a bitterly cold December afternoon. As the friends reached the summi_f the grey cliffs, a squall, fresh from the Arctic regions, came sweepin_ver the angry sea, cutting the foam in flecks from the waves, and whistling, as if in baffled fury, among the opposing crags.
“Isn’t it a grand sight?” said Phil, as they sought shelter under the lee of _rojecting rock.
“Glorious! I never look upon that sight,” said Aspel, with flashing eyes, “without wishing that I had lived in the days of the old Vikings.”
The youth traced his descent from the sea-kings of Norway—those tremendou_ellows who were wont in days of yore to ravage the shores of the known an_nknown world, east and west, north and south, leaving their indelible mar_like on the hot sands of Africa and the icebound rocks of Greenland. As Phi_aylands knew nothing of his own lineage further back than his grandfather, h_as free to admire the immense antiquity of his friend’s genealogical tree.
Phil was not, however, so completely under the fascination of his hero as t_e utterly blind to his faults; but he loved him, and that sufficed to cove_hem up.
“Sure, they were a wild lot, after all?” he said in a questioning tone, as h_ooked up at the glowing countenance of his friend, who, with his bold mien, bulky frame, blue eyes, and fair curls, would have made a very creditabl_iking indeed, had he lived in the tenth century.
“Of course they were, Phil,” he replied, looking down at his admirer with _mile. “Men could not well be otherwise than wild and warlike in those days; but it was not all ravage and plunder with them. Why, it is to them and t_heir wise laws that we owe much of the freedom, coupled with the order, tha_revails in our happy land; and didn’t they cross the Atlantic Ocean in thing_ittle better than herring-boats, without chart or compass, and discove_merica long before Columbus was born?”
“You don’t mean that?” said Phil, with increased admiration; for the boy wa_ot only smitten by his friend’s physical powers, but by his suppose_ntellectual attainments.
“Yes, I do mean that,” returned Aspel. “If the Norsemen of old did mischief, as no one can deny, they were undoubtedly grand old scoundrels, and it i_ertain that they did much good to the world, whether they meant it or not.”
Phil Maylands made no reply, but continued to look meditatively at his friend, until the latter laughed, and asked what he was thinking about.
“It’s thinking I am, what I wouldn’t give if my legs were only as long a_ours, George.”
“That they will soon be,” returned George, “if they go on at the rate they’v_een growing of late.”
“That’s a true word, anyhow; but as men’s legs don’t go on growing at the sam_ate for ever, it’s not much hope I have of mine. No, George, it’s kind of yo_o encourage me, but the Maylands have ever been a short-legged and long- bodied race. So it’s said. However, it’s some comfort to know that short me_re often long-headed, and that many of them get on in the world pretty well.”
“Of course they do,” returned Aspel, “and though they can’t grow long, the_ever stop short in the race of life. Why, look at Nelson—he was short; an_ellington wasn’t long, and Bonny himself was small in every way except in hi_ntellect—who’s that coming up the hill?”
“It’s Mike Kenny, the postman, I think. I wonder if he has brought a lette_rom sister May. Mother expects one, I know.”
The man who had attracted their attention was ascending towards them with th_low, steady gait of a practised mountaineer. He was the post-runner of th_istrict. Being a thinly-peopled and remote region, the “runner’s walk” was _retty extensive one, embracing many a mile of moorland, vale and mountain. H_ad completed most of his walk at that time, having only one mountain shoulde_ow between him and the little village of Howlin Cove, where his labours wer_o terminate for that day.
“Good-evening, Mike,” said George Aspel, as the man approached. “Any letter_or me to-night?”
“No, sur, not wan,” answered Mike, with something of a twinkle in his eye; “but I’ve left wan at Rocky Cottage,” he added, turning to Philip Maylands.
“Was it May’s handwriting?” asked the boy eagerly.
“Sure I don’t know for sartin whose hand it is i’ the inside, but it’s no_iss May’s on the cover. Niver a wan in these parts could write lik_er—copperplate, no less.”
“Come, George, let’s go back,” said Phil, quickly, “we’ve been looking out fo_ letter for some days past.”
“It’s not exactly a letter, Master Phil,” said the post-runner slowly.
“Ah, then, she’d never put us off with a newspaper,” said Phil.
“No, it’s a telegram,” returned Mike.
Phil Maylands looked thoughtfully at the ground. “A telegram,” he said, “that’s strange. Are ye sure, Mike?”
“Troth am I.”
Without another word the boy started off at a quick walk, followed by hi_riend and the post-runner. The latter had to diverge at that place to leave _etter at the house of a man named Patrick Grady. Hence, for a short distance, they followed the same road.
Young Maylands would have passed the house, but as Grady was an intimat_riend of George Aspel, he agreed to stop just to shake hands.
Patrick Grady was the soul of hospitality. He was not to be put off with _ere shake of the hand, not he—telegrams meant nothing now-a-days, he said, everybody sent them. No cause for alarm. They must stop and have a glass o_ountain dew.
Aspel was resolute, however; he would not sit down, though he had no objectio_o the mountain dew. Accordingly, the bottle was produced, and a full glas_as poured out for Aspel, who quaffed off the pure spirit with a free-and-eas_oss and smack of the lips, that might have rendered one of the beery old sea- kings envious.
“No, sur, I thank ye,” said Mike, when a similar glass was offered to him.
“What! ye haven’t taken the pledge, have ye?” said Grady.
“No, sur; but I’ve had three glasses already on me walk, an’ that’s as much a_ can rightly carry.”
“Nonsense, Mike. You’ve a stiff climb before you—here, take it off.”
The facile postman did take it off without further remonstrance.
“Have a dhrop, Phil?”
“No, thank ee,” said Phil, firmly, but without giving a reason for declining.
Being a boy, he was not pressed to drink, and the party left the house. _hort distance farther on the road forked, and here the post-runner turned of_o the right, taking the path which led towards the hill whose rugged shoulde_e had yet to scale.
Mike Kenny breasted it not only with the energy of youth and strength, bu_ith the additional and artificial energy infused by the spirits, so that, much to his own surprise, his powers began to fail prematurely. Just then _torm of wind and sleet came down from the heights above, and broke wit_itter fury in his face. He struggled against it vigorously for a time till h_ained a point whence he saw the dark blue sea lashing on the cliffs below. H_ooked up at the pass which was almost hid by the driving sleet. A feeling o_egret and self-condemnation at having so readily given in to Grady wa_ingled with a strong sense of the duty that he had to discharge as he onc_ore breasted the steep. The bitter cold began to tell on his exhausted frame.
In such circumstances a small matter causes a man to stumble. Kenny’s foo_aught on something—a root it might be—and he fell headlong into a ditch an_as stunned. The cold did its work, and from that ditch he never rose again.
Meanwhile Mr Grady looked out from the window of his cottage upon th_athering storm, expressed some satisfaction that it did not fall to his lo_o climb hills on such a day, and comforted himself—though he did not appea_o stand in need of special comfort—with another glass of whisky.
George Aspel and Philip Maylands, with their backs to the storm, hurrie_omewards; the former exulting in the grand—though somewha_isconnected—thoughts infused into his fiery soul by the fire-water he ha_mbibed, and dreaming of what he would have dared and done had he only been _ea-king of the olden time; the latter meditating somewhat anxiously on th_robable nature of his sister’s telegram.