THE TRACKS IN THE SNOW.
THE window of Mary's room faced the west, and she was fond of sitting there in the evening. It was a curious little bower, up in the pointed roof of the oldest part of the cottage—which had been added to at different periods, and presented the appearance of a promiscuous collection of odds and ends of houses, not one of which bore the slightest resemblance to any of the rest. The window was the only one in the ivy-covered gable, and looked into a little enclosure, half garden and half shrubbery. Mary sat near the window, looking at the fast-sinking sun, while Grace stood opposite the looking-glass arranging her hair.
"Ah, Mary," she said, with a sigh, "that's the elegant young man."
"Is he, indeed? Then I suppose Richard is to be discarded?"
"Oh, Richard is quite an Adonis. But, then, Mr. Lowe has such an air—he is so aristocratic. He seems to admire you," she continued. "But that's of course. They all admire a b-e-a-u-t-y." Miss Grace dwelt upon the word with a curl of the lip, as if she had the most sovereign contempt for beauty. At the same time she stood upon her toes and surveyed herself in the glass from every possible point of view.
"Do you think yourself handsome, Grace?
"Well, between you and me, Mary. I do. Though not in the usual way, perhaps."
"You mean 'handsome is that handsome does?'"
"Not at all! I was not thinking of that stupid old proverb. But there is Adonis in the garden, and—what shall we call the other?—Apollo."
Mary looked round and saw her brothers and Mr. Lowe in the garden.
And what will you call Hugh?" she asked. "Oh, Nabuchodonosor, if you like—or, Finn Macool," replied Grace, laughing. "I really don't know what to make of him. He seems to be always trying to calculate how many thorns in an acre of furze."
Richard here called to his sister, saying:
Can you tell us anything about the tracks in the snow? We are puzzled by them?
"No," Mary replied, opening the window, and looking down with surprise.
"The puzzle is," said Richard. "that there are no tracks >coming towards the house. The person must have jumped from your window."
"Do you think anything has been stolen?" she asked.
"The tracks," he replied, "are those of slight high-heeled boots, such as gentlemen wear."
"I don't know on earth how to account for it," said Mary.
"And he must have been well acquainted with the place," Richard continued; "for he faced straight to the stile behind the laurels: and no stranger would have done that."
Mary's face flushed crimson; but to her great relief her brothers and Mr. Lowe were looking towards the laurels and did not observe her. They followed the footprints out on the road near "The Bush"—where the lads and lasses of Knocknagow were wont to assemble—and here all trace of them was lost in the trampled snow.
The three young men returned to the house through the farmyard, Mr. Lowe having expressed a wish to see the horse of which his host had spoken in the morning.
"Really, Mary," said Grace, "it is like that one of the Melodies—
"Weep for the hour
When to Eveleen's bower
The lord of the valley with false vows came."
"Is there a lord of the valley in the case?"
"I don't know what to make of you," said Mary, looking at her as if she thought it just possible that Miss Grace Kiely might be the queen of the fairies. "But as you really must be a witch of some kind—"
"Not one of those ladies, I hope," Grace interrupted, "who nightly travel upon broomsticks."
"Well," Mary resumed, laughing, "anything you like. But, perhaps, you could make out the mystery?"
"Well, let me see."
She knelt down, and resting her elbows on the low window frame, put her hands under her chin, and with knitted brow contemplated the footprints in the snow.
"The solution of the mystery is this," she gravely began. "There is nothing very extraordinary in a man's footprint in snow. The footprint is an ordinary affair enough; but the wonder is, as Sydney Smith said of the fly in the amber, 'how the devil it got there.' Have you read any of Sydney Smith's writings?"
"Never read Peter Plymley's Letters?"
"Never," Mary replied.
Grace shook her head, and was about proceeding with what she called the solution of the mystery, when she again broke off with—
"By-the-by, there was a discussion at our last literary dinner party, as I call them when we have the poets and editors—about Longfellow's
'Footprints on the sands of time.'
'Tis to be hoped when I speak of Longfellow you do not suppose I mean your graceful brother?"
"No," replied Mary, laughing, "I am not quite so illiterate as you suppose. Though I dare say your poets and editors would be apt to set me down for a fool."
"A fool!" Grace exclaimed. "Bless your innocence, they adore fools. No girl but a fool has the ghost of a chance of making any impression upon them. The 'Brehon,' to be sure, seems to appreciate your humble servant slightly, and has perpetrated an acrostic which I will repeat for you some time. But unfortunately the 'Brehon' is the rummest of the whole lot."
"Oh, such ignorance! The rummest! But 'Shamrock,' who writes divinely, and who is really a nice fellow—I confess to a weakness for nice fellows—is quite gone about my foolish sister.
'Now, if I am, indeed, a bard,
Immortal song, uncrowned, unstarred—
Though gold, and friends, and rivals guard—
Shall win thee, spite of Fate, Jessie.'
She substitutes 'Eva ' for 'Jessie,' and takes it all to herself, I fear the poor child's head is a little turned," sighed Miss Grace, with a very wise shake of her own.
Mary laughed, for the poor child was five years her senior.
But Grace, without condescending to notice the interruption, went on:
"To return, however, to the
'Footprints on the sands of time.'
It was objected that the returning tide would wash away a footprint from the sand, and therefore the idea was a bad one. But papa very properly observed that time, when compared with eternity, was nothing more than the strand between the ebbing and flowing of the tide. But to come to our footprints in the snow. We need not trouble ourselves with the notion that his Sable Majesty has had anything to do with them. Of course you read Robinson Crusoe?"
"Yes," replied Mary, wondering what Robinson Crusoe could have to do with it.
"Very good. Well, the solution of the mystery is this: our man Friday—in a stylish pair of Wellington boots—was standing there when the snow commenced to fall; and, like a patient savage as he was, there he remained till the snow left off—and then walked away. Quod erat demonstrandum. Excuse my weakness for Latin."
"I declare," said Mary, with a look of wonder, "that must be it."
"Oh," exclaimed Grace, resuming her bright look, "there are a pair of feet 'making tracks,' as our Yankee friends would say, which might well frighten John the Baptist himself if he met them in the wilderness."
And she pointed to Barney Brodherick, who was making for the stile behind the laurels, in his not-to-be-described mode of locomotion.
Mary called to him, and Barney swung round and looked up at them.
"Barney," said she, "did you meet anyone on your way from town last night?
"Begob, I did, Miss," replied Barney, with a start. "An' God forgive me," he continued, pulling off his hat and taking a letter from the lining, "I forgot to give you this bit uv a note."
He came under the window and threw the letter up to Grace, who caught it and handed it to Mary.
"What o'clock might it be, Miss Grace?" Barney asked, with the coaxing grin he always wore when speaking to her.
"It is past four, Barney."
"Thanum-on-dioul, can it be late so early? "he exclaimed. "Tare-an-'ouns, I'll be kilt." And Barney "make tracks' for the stile behind the laurels.
Grace laughed, and turned round to repeat his words; but checked herself on seeing Mary with the open letter in her hand, gazing towards the distant mountains.
"And now," she said abstractedly, "he is gone."