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Up in Ardmuirland

The following is from Up in Ardmuirland by Michael Barrett:

Chapter XI - A Sprig of Shamrock

"Amid the roses fierce Repentance rears
Her snaky crest."

(Thomson's Seasons---"Spring")

"Shamrock in Scotland!" I seem to hear some captious critic exclaim. I do not attribute Scottish birth to the particular sprig of shamrock which is to figure in these pages, dear reader. Like all true shamrock, it was grown in the Emerald Isle. Nevertheless, it was by its means that the subject of this story migrated to Ardmuirland; hence it is responsible for my narrative.

*      *      *      *      *      *

It was no fault on Bernard Murray's part that all his acquaintances should without exception imagine that he was of Scottish race. For every one who knew him well--and they numbered not a few--dubbed him "a canny Scot.” He had not started the fiction, even if he had done nothing toward contradicting it. For what did it matter to any one else that his nationality should be so widely misinterpreted? He did not care a straw. Indeed, it is possible that in his secret heart he was rather pleased that the illusion had grown up. For it might prove awkward to be known as Irish; Ireland, among the set in which he moved, was looked upon as so impossibly retrograde! So when he was hailed as "a canny Scot" Bernard merely smiled pleasantly and held his peace.

 

No doubt Violet Rossall thought that smile well worth awakening. It was so sunny--lighting up to classical beauty Bernard's usually grave yet always handsome features. The rarity of his smile, too, rendered it all the more precious. His habitual quiet thoughtfulness of expression helped to settle so definitely his supposed origin; yet had his admirers been better learned in physiognomy they could never have guessed so wide of the mark. The clear, pale skin, the black hair and dark blue eyes so palpably proclaimed him Irish! Moreover, it was to his native traits that he really owed his wide popularity. The quiet reserve which usually characterized him hid a fund of brilliant humour, which would occasionally, and often unexpectedly, flash out in some quick retort or witty jest; nor was there ever wanting that indefinable attraction which is the special charm of Erin's sons and daughters all the world over.

Even Cuthbert Aston was not proof against that charm, although in a sense he and Bernard were rivals. For it must have been as evident to Violet Rossall as it was to all onlookers that both Murray and Aston sought her company in preference to that of any other maiden of their acquaintance; which of the two was preferred by her was not so evident, since she seemed to favour both alike.

Violet was, indeed, the centre of attraction for all the unattached males of her particular set. For one reason, she was undeniably beautiful. An oval face, creamy complexion, large, changeful grey eyes, abundant hair of bright chestnut hue, a slim and graceful figure--these were but the half of her charms; there was beauty in her ever-changing expression, and beauty, above all, in that radiant, winning smile, apart from all loveliness of form or feature. She was so undeniably clever, too. She had passed through school and college with flying colours, carrying off one distinction after another; now she held a prominent position as teacher in a secondary school, with the certain prospect of advancement in course of time to spheres of higher responsibility and social position. Violet, therefore, was well pleased with her lot, and felt, it may be taken for granted, little anxiety about her future.

As regards a life-partner, were she disposed to relinquish the chance of future honours for present ease and happiness, there were many aspirants to the distinction; she might choose freely among the eligible bachelors of her acquaintance. Two only of these, however, seemed to appeal to her sense of fitness--Murray and Aston.

The former, a year or two older than herself, was a master at the same school; clever and capable, he was evidently destined to rise rapidly in his profession, and his future promise, together with his attractive personality, might well render him the more favoured suitor.

Cuthbert Aston could not be compared with Murray as regarded intellect, attainments, or personal charm; but he had other attractions of no less weight in the eyes of a girl who had social ambitions. His father had made money in business, and bore the reputation of possessing great wealth. Cuthbert, was the only child of infatuated parents, who had spared no expense in his upbringing, and were ready to gratify his every whim. For a genteel occupation he had been placed in a bank--"not that it would be necessary for him to earn his living at it," as Mrs. Aston was careful to inform her lady friends; "but it was well to give him something to do, and banking is not trade! If the dear boy should get tired of the routine, he could easily take up something else more to his taste."

Apart from his worldly prospects, there was little to attract a girl of Violet's character toward Cuthbert Aston. He was what men technically style "a bounder!” Yet, empty-headed, arrogant, self-cantered though he might be, he was a rich man's only son. In Violet's eyes that in itself condoned many flagrant defects. The Astons moved in the highest circles of the city--spite of Mrs. Aston's "flamboyant" style and her husband's demonstrative vulgarity; as a member of their family, therefore, her social status would be secure.

If the girl had any heart it must have pleaded on behalf of Bernard Murray--young, handsome, lovable, as he was. Nothing else except ambition could have allowed her to compare Aston with him. There might, it is true, have been a spice of adventure connected with her encouragement of the latter; it was well known that his parents looked with dismay upon the prospect of their idolized boy "throwing himself away on that little school-teacher," as his mother phrased it.

To do the Astons credit, their objection to Violet did not rest wholly upon an imagined social disparity; there was a much graver reason. The girl lost no opportunity in proclaiming herself a pronounced Free-thinker. Her mother had died while she was quite a child, and for her upbringing Violet had depended wholly upon her father--an ardent Socialist as well as Atheist. Thus she had grown up in an atmosphere thoroughly anti-religious, until death had claimed her father also. Socialism had never strongly appealed to her, and was not likely to do so, under present circumstances; for religion she entertained a supercilious disdain, as "out-of-date nonsense."

Here, then, were three young people kept in contact by the evident attraction of both men for the same girl, and by the diplomatic encouragement which the latter seemed to give to each in equal proportion. Had Violet not been in question, Murray would have given the cold shoulder to Aston; but as Violet tolerated Aston, he perforce must put up with him. Aston, on his part, admired and feared Murray, whom he regarded as a formidable rival.

"What puzzles me about Murray," he exclaimed once to a boon companion, "is his jolly good English! Why, the chap has positively no kind of provincial accent!” (Cuthbert's English, by the way, was not regarded by his intimates as the perfect thing!) "He doesn't speak like a Scotch Johnny at all! You never hear an 'Aye, aye' or 'd'ye ken?'--not a broad vowel even! Why, he might have lived all his life this side the border, to judge by his tongue, confound him!"

There could be no doubt of Cuthbert's attachment to Violet. No remonstrances of his mother--and they were but mild, in spite of her objection to Violet, since she recognized the futility of opposing her son's determined will--had the slightest effect with him. He felt confident in the final acquiescence of both parents in whatever he might choose to do with regard to marriage. Everything, as he saw, rested with Violet, and he was shrewd enough to appreciate the advantages--not so much personal as social--involved in her ultimate decision.

An amateur operatic company had been started in the town, and all the musical talent among the younger generation had been stirred up to take part in what was regarded as a pleasant occupation for winter evenings with the pleasurable anticipation of the excitement of a public performance as the outcome of practices. Our human triangle formed part of the company. All three were musical, and two of them more than usually talented both in singing and acting--Violet and Bernard. The former especially--endowed with a beautiful soprano voice, which had been well cultivated, added to what is styled by the initiated "a good stage presence"--was much in request on all such occasions. She had filled more than one title-role in popular operas presented by their little company, and no one would dream of casting her for any other than the leading part. Bernard had a good tenor voice, and Cuthbert a very fair bass.

It happened that the particular opera chosen for presentation during the Easter holidays was to be performed by a capable travelling company in a neighbouring town a month or so before. Consequently our amateurs felt it their duty to witness the performance, and thus pick up some valuable hints for future use by such a mild form of "under-study." Not only our three friends, but two others of the company--the second soprano and the contralto--started on their short railway journey on a certain evening in March, intending to return by the last train.

It was scarcely possible, without giving offence to some one or other of the party, to arrange beforehand who was to escort whom. One of the men must inevitably take charge of two of the ladies; fate must determine which! Cuthbert Aston--a youth unaccustomed to deny himself any gratification upon which he had set his mind--had probably resolved that it would not be he! But fortune is proverbially fickle. The train was crowded and seats were at a discount. It was impossible for all five to travel together. Violet--with a woman's perversity, perhaps, because of Cuthbert's evident intention, or, it may be, to show a deliberate preference for Murray--contrived that the latter should accompany herself. The other cavalier was therefore compelled, with as good grace as he could manage, to find places in another compartment for himself and the two very uninteresting maidens thus thrust upon him. No wonder he was nettled! Like a spoiled boy he determined to leave Violet to herself--or rather to her chosen escort--for the rest of the evening. Glum as an owl, he took his place in the theatre between the two girls, keeping himself severely aloof from the fickle lady of his dreams. She, on the contrary, stirred by the pleasurable excitement of her surroundings, and possibly not displeased by so evident a proof of Cuthhert's appreciation of her, gave herself wholly to the enjoyment of the hour.

Bernard, on his part, could not fail to be struck by the preference manifested in his regard; he, too, was consequently in high spirits. No better companion--apart from his personal attraction for her--could have been allotted to him for such an occasion. Violet's sunny presence, her clever criticisms of the acting and singing--which he had learned of old to expect--promised for him a thoroughly enjoyable evening. His heart took courage; was it possible that this charming girl really preferred him--a man who had to make his way in the world, and work hard to provide a home for her such as befitted her hopes and ambitions--to this rich man's only son, who had it in his power to give her at once wealth, position, and admiration?

The first act was over. They both had been charmed with what they had seen and heard, and it was pleasurable to compare impressions and to anticipate further gratifying experiences. The theatre was warm, and Violet unwound from her neck a lace scarf which she had been wearing. Pinned to the bosom of her pretty mauve dress was a tiny spray of dull green leaves.

"What have you there?" he asked all unthinkingly.

But before she could answer he knew, and a wave of mingled remorse, shame, and self-condemnation swept over his soul.

"What is it? Why, shamrock, of course!"

"Shamrock!" was all he could falter lamely in reply.

"Yes, shamrock. Queen Alexandra set the fashion, you know. Every one who wants to do the correct thing wears shamrock today. But of course you are a Scotchman; you probably have no idea what day it is! So I don't mind instructing you. It's St. Patrick's Day."

He dare not speak. She took his silence and his rapt gaze on the little spray of green as token of his admiration of her.

"Perhaps," she rattled on lightly, "you never heard of Patrick, or if you did, you are inclined to share the modern opinion that 'there never was no sich a person'--to quote an immortal! If you were an Irishman I should not dare to whisper such a thing; but a canny Scot could have no regard for Patrick, even should he believe in him ever so much!"

Bernard kept his self-control, though he was deadly pale as he spoke.

"If it is so correct to wear it, you might give me a bit of it."

Smilingly she complied. He placed it in his buttonhole with what must have seemed to her elaborate care. Luckily the curtain rose, and he was free to indulge his thoughts.

Oh, it was almost sacramental--that tiny sprig! How it called up dead memories--memories of the old land, of his dear ones now gone, of his boyhood's simple faith!

"If you were an Irishman! . . . Perhaps you never heard of Patrick!" The frivolous words burned his brain.

O God! Believe in Patrick! His breath came and went. He could hardly refrain from pressing his lips to the tiny leaves he was wearing on his breast.

An Irishman, indeed, he was; but how unworthy of the name! He, a child of that dear land which Patrick's blessed feet had trodden--he, a son of that race to whom the saint's words of grace had made known the Truth--what was he now? A renegade! A false deserter from the ranks of his faithful countrymen! He had been ashamed of his nationality! He had ceased to practise or to cherish the faith which Patrick had brought to the Isle of Saints!

The curtain fell upon the second act, and he had to be ready to listen to frivolities and to respond. He did it with a bad grace, as he well knew. Indeed, he would gladly have been far away--hidden in the dark corner of some deserted church, where freely and unrestrainedly he might pour forth penitential tears, and beg forgiveness of the Father he had so wantonly offended.

"How deadly dull you are to-night!" cried his companion. "I believe Cuthbert Aston, glum as he looks, would have been more entertaining! What can be the matter with you?"

Her banter failed to provoke the always ready apology--usually so charmingly proffered.

He could only mutter something about an awful headache; luckily Violet's attention was drawn for the moment to an acquaintance who caught her eye, and there was a speedy change of subject. Did he ever see such execrable taste as that girl's dress? It was positively hideous! The colours did not suit either the wearer or each other, etc., etc.

It was a relief when the curtain rose once more. The music and the action of the piece engrossed the attention of Violet; to Bernard they were God-sent helps. His mind could range back over the past without restraint, while outwardly he appeared absorbed in the play.

What torrents of self-reproach swept over him as he retraced the wanderings of his misspent years--misspent as regarded the service of his Creator, however prosperous in the eyes of the world! The past came back like a dream. His innocent childhood, spent under the vigilant care of a saintly mother; his boyhood, with its keener joys--all tempered by religion; his school-days, his college career--both dominated by faith; in minute detail the pictures passed before his mental vision as he sat there, silent and solitary--heedless of the throng of pleasure-seekers all around him. The sorrow with which such recollections filled his heart was caused by the contrast which after years presented. He could recall his first falling-away from grace, when the successful attainment of a coveted appointment had brought with it the necessity of concealing his Catholic upbringing and convictions. How rapidly had he descended after that turning point had been passed! Conscience had been stifled until its voice no longer troubled him. Ambition became his goal, worldly success his God. Far away in Ireland his mother had died blessing him for his generous provision for her, ignorant of her darling's downfall. None were now left for whose opinion he had cared one straw, even should they learn of his apostasy.

Shrouded as they were in the gloom of the auditorium, his face, kept resolutely toward the stage, could not be seen by his companion, much less his eyes, which were wells of misery. In his overwhelming grief he almost forgot the girl beside him until a whispered remark upon some beautiful passage in the music recalled her presence. It did but add fresh stings to his remorse. Could it be possible that he--a son of a sainted mother, child of a faithful Catholic race--could have contemplated marriage with a professed atheist? Had he indeed been planning to take to wife, to make the mother of his possible children, one who openly flouted the idea of a personal God--he, who had drunk in at his mother's breast the burning love of the Faith which is the birthright of every true son of Ireland?

The pain and the shame which filled his heart were well-nigh unendurable! Oh, if he could but manage to keep his self-control for an hour or two! If he could but hold out until he was alone; for at times it seemed as though he must betray himself--there, in that public assembly--by crying aloud in his anguish, or even by breaking out into unmanly weeping.

How he got through that miserable evening he never could recall. He realized by her coldness on the return journey, and by the demonstrative encouragement shown to Aston, that he had woefully offended Violet.

Bernard never played his allotted part in the opera; for to every one's astonishment he threw up his appointment and left the town, bound no one knew whither. So the course was clear for Cuthbert Aston, and he lost no time in making good his opportunity. His engagement to Violet took no one by surprise, when his only possible rival was out of the way.

It does not need a very vivid imagination to voice the sentiments of Aston and his fiancée on the subject of Bernard's extraordinary conduct--as it would appear to them.

"I was always afraid," the successful suitor would doubtless exclaim, "that Murray would be the fortunate chap; he was so jolly clever--and good looking, too!"

"Of course," we may imagine the lady responding, "he was all right in that way--handsome, and well-bred, and all that sort of thing. But surely affection is the only thing one really values, dear, and you were always so faithful," etc., etc., etc.

Meanwhile, in the great Trappist monastery beyond the Irish Sea a Brother Patrick laboured and prayed--if so be he might make some reparation, at least for past unfaithfulness to so bountiful a Lord.

*      *      *      *      *      *

"You must have been working hard at your prayers, Ted," was Val's morning salutation to me when I went in to breakfast one day.

"What, am I late?" I asked, glancing at my watch.

"Oh, that's nothing unusual," was the unkind response, "But I was not thinking of this morning in particular. Don't you remember what I asked you to pray for?"

"To be sure I do. For a particularly good mistress for the school."

(For we had just had the misfortune to lose one who was next door to perfection, and wanted to increase in perfection by entering a convent, and Val had been worrying himself to replace her before the holidays were over.)

"So you've heard of one? That's good!" I continued.

"Well, not exactly," said Val. "I've heard of a person who is on the lookout for a place of this kind, and reference seem quite correct, but----"

"But what? If she is all right, why hesitate? Write at once, my dear fellow, and snap her up before some one else does!"

Val's eyes twinkled.

"It's not a she at all. That's the difficulty. It's a master who is applying."

I whistled my astonishment, then shook my head in distrust.

"If he's not a fraud he must be fooling you!" I rejoined irreverently. "No capable master would come up here."

"Read that before you make a pronouncement," said Val, as he threw a letter across the table to me.

It proved to be from an old college friend of Val's, and backed up very warmly the application for our vacant post of a young man who was an excellent trained teacher, who had tried his vocation as a monk, and had failed through a breakdown in health. He was in want of an easy berth in good country air, where he could pick up his strength and fit himself for entering college to train for the secular priesthood in a couple of years. No man with sense in his head would think twice about closing with such a promising candidate; Val wrote back gladly accepting the young man.

So Bernard Murray came to Ardmuirland, and won all our hearts in no time.

"That gentleman's got the face of a priest, Mr. Edmund," was Penny's remark at first sight of him.

"Murray's a treasure!" cried Val in delight. "He'll do wonders with our bairns, Ted!"

It was a true forecast. The children all took to him at once; the little lassies loved him; for he had a gentle way with them--like that of a kindly, grown-up brother; the boys regarded him with more awe, but were ready to stand up for him against any adversary, as the best shinty player in the district. He thoroughly transformed our little choir of children--leading them and accompanying them with taste and skill.

To Val as well as to myself he grew inexpressibly dear. It became the regular custom for one or other of us to look in at the schoolhouse of an evening, to smoke a pipe with the master, or to lure him for a walk--should the weather be favourable; while on Sunday evenings after service Murray dined with us as a matter of course. It was in the intimate fellowship thus engendered that he confided to me his life story as detailed above.

It was a wrench to all three of us when the parting came, and the dear boy left us to begin his training for the Foreign Missions--his elected field of labour; but we could not grudge our sacrifice when we compared it with the immensity of his.

Bernard is devoting rare talents, ceaseless energy, abundant tenderness to the winning of souls to God. Difficult and hopeless as his efforts appear, yet his rare letters breathe patience and cheerful content. Like every true missionary, he is prodigal of labour, in spite of the apparent scarcity of the harvest gathered; for like his fellows, he relies upon those inspired words which promise a plentiful reaping before the great Harvest-home.

"They went forth on their way and wept: scattering their seed.
But returning, they shall come with joy: carrying their sheaves."

Chapter XII--Penny


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