Story type: Essay
–By AE and Aretas (G.W. Russell and James M. Pryse)
While our vision, backward cast,
Ranged the everliving past,
Through a haze of misty things–
Luminous with quiverings
Musical as starry chimes–
Rose a hero of old times,
In whose breast the magic powers
Slumbering from primeval hours,
Woke at the enchantment wild
Of Aed Abrait’s lovely child;
Still for all her Druid learning
With the wild-bird heart, whose yearning
Blinded at his strength and beauty,
Clung to love and laughed at duty.
Warrior chief, and mystic maid,
Through your stumbling footsteps strayed,
This at least in part atones–
Jewels were your stumbling-stones!
I. The Birds of Angus
The birds were a winging rapture in the twilight. White wings, grey wings, brown wings, fluttered around and over the pine trees that crowned the grassy dun. The highest wings flashed with a golden light. At the sound of voices they vanished.
“How then shall we go to the plains of Murthemney? We ought not to be known. Shall we go invisibly, or in other forms? We must also fly as swiftly as the birds go.”
“Fly! yes, yes, we shall–fly as the birds. But we shall choose fairer forms than these. I know where the Birds of Angus flock. Come, Liban, come!”
The crypt beneath the dun was flooded with light, silvery and golden, a light which came not from the sun nor from the moon; a light not born from any parent luminary, and which knew nothing opaque. More free than the birds of the air were the shadowy forms of the two daughters of Aed Abrait, as they gazed out from that rock-built dun upon a place their mortal feet had never trod. Yet timidly Liban looked at her more adventurous sister. Fand floated to the centre of the cavern, erect and radiant. Her eyes followed the wavy tremulous motion of the light as it rolled by. They seemed to pierce through earth and rock, and search out the secret hollows of the star, to know the vastness, and to dominate and compel the motion of the light. Her sister watched her half curiously and half in admiration and wonder. As the floating form grew more intense the arms swayed about and the lips murmured. A sheen as of many jewels played beneath the pearly mist which enrobed her; over her head rose the crest of the Dragon; she seemed to become one with the shining, to draw it backwards into herself. Then from far away came a wondrous melody, a sound as of the ancient chiming of the stars. The sidereal rivers flowed by with more dazzling light, and the Birds of Angus were about them.
“Look, Liban, look!” cried the Enchantress. “These of old were the chariots of the children of men. On these the baby offspring of the Gods raced through the nights of diamond and sapphire. We are not less than they though a hundred ages set us apart. We will go forth royally as they did. Let us choose forms from among these. If the Hound should see us he will know we have power.”
With arms around each other they watched the starry flocks hurtling about them. The birds wheeled around, fled away, and again returned. There were winged serpents; might which would put to flight the degenerate eagle; plumage before which the birds of paradise would show dull as clay. These wings dipt in the dawn flashed ceaselessly. Ah, what plumage of white fire rayed out with pinions of opalescent glory! What feathered sprays of burning amethyst! What crests of scarlet and gold, of citron and wavy green! They floated by in countless multitudes; they swayed in starry clusters dripping with light, singing a melody caught from the spheres of the Gods, the song which of old called forth the earth from its slumber. The sound was entrancing. Oh, fiery birds who float in the purple rivers of the Twilight, ye who rest in the great caverns of the world, whoever listens to your song shall grow faint with longing, for he shall hear the great, deep call in his heart and his spirit shall yearn to go afar; whatever eyes see you shall grow suddenly blinded with tears for a glory that has passed away from the world, for an empire we no longer range.
“They bring back the air of the ancient days. Ah! now I have the heart of the child once again. Time has not known me. Let us away with them. We will sweep over Eri and lead the starry flocks as the queen birds.”
“If we only dared. But think, Fand, we shall have every wizard eye spying upon us, and every body who can use his freedom will follow and thwart us. Not these forms, but others let us take. Ah, look at those who come in grey and white and brown! Send home the radiant ones. We will adventure with these.”
“Be it so. Back to your fountains, O purple rivers! King-Bird, Queen-Bird, to your home in the hollows lead your flock!” So she spoke, but her words were shining and her waving arms compelled the feathered monarchs with radiations of outstretched flame. To the others: “Rest here awhile, sweet singers. We shall not detain you captive for long.” So she spoke, but her hands that caressed laid to sleep the restless pulsations of the wings and lulled the ecstatic song.
Night, which to the eye of the magian shows more clearly all that the bright day conceals, overspread with a wizard twilight the vast hollow of the heavens. Numberless airy rivulets, each with its own peculiar shining, ran hither and thither like the iridescent currents streaming over a bubble. Out of still duskier, more darkly glowing and phantasmal depths stared the great eyes of space, rimmed about with rainbow-dyes. As night moved on to dawn two birds shot forth from the dun, linked together by a cord of golden fire. They fled southwards and eastwards. As they went they sang a song which tingled the pulses of the air. In the dark fields the aureoles around the flowers grew momentarily brighter. Over the mountain homes of the Tuatha de Danaans rose up shadowy forms who watched, listened, and pondered awhile. The strayed wanderers amid the woods heard the enraptured notes and forgot their sorrows and life itself in a hurricane of divine remembrance. Where the late feast was breaking up the melody suddenly floated in and enwreathed the pillared halls, and revellers became silent where they stood, the mighty warriors in their hands bowed low their faces. Still on and on swept the strange birds flying southwards and eastwards.
Still in many a peasant cot
Lives the story unforgot,
While the faded parchments old
Still their rhyming tale unfold.
There is yet another book
Where thine eager eyes may look.
There within its shining pages
Lives the long romance of ages,
Liban, Fand, their glowing dreams,
Angus’s birds, the magic streams
Flooding all the twilight crypt,
Runes and spells in starry script;
Secrets never whispered here
In the light are chanted clear.
Read in the tales of Eri
If the written word be weary.
Never is there day so gleaming
But the dusk o’ertakes it;
Never night so dark and dreaming
But the dawn awakes it:
And the soul has nights and days
In its own eternal ways.
II. Cuchullain’s Dream
The air was cool with the coming of winter; but with the outer cold came the inner warmth of the sun, full of subtile vitality and strength. And the Ultonians had assembled to light the yearly fire in honor of the Sun-God, at the seven-days’ feast of Samhain. There the warriors of Ulster rested by the sacred fire, gazing with closed eyes upon the changing colors of the sun-breath, catching glimpses of visions, or anon performing feats of magic when they felt the power stirring within their breasts. They sang the songs of old times, of the lands of the West, where their forefathers live ere the earth-fires slew those lands, and the sea-waves buried them, leaving only the Eri, the isle where dwelt men so holy that the earth-fires dared not to assail it, and the ocean stood at bay. Lightly the warriors juggled with their great weapons of glittering bronze; and each told of his deeds in battle and in the chase; but woe to him who boasted or spoke falsely, magnifying his prowess, for then would his sword angrily turn of itself in its scabbard, convicting him of untruth.
Cuchullain, youngest but mightiest of all the warriors, sat moodily apart, his beardless chin resting in the palms of his hands, his eyes staring fixedly at the mirror-like surface of the lake upon whose sloping bank he rested. Laeg, his charioteer, lying at full length upon the greensward near by, watched him intently, a gloomy shadow darkening his unusually cheerful face.
“It’s a woman’s trick, that,” he muttered to himself, “staring into the water when trying to see the country of the Sidhe, and unworthy of a warrior. And to think of him doing it, who used to have the clearest sight, and had more power for wonder-working than anyone else in the lands of the West! Besides, he isn’t seeing anything now, for all the help of the water. When last I went to the dun some women of the Sidhe told me they had looked up Cuchullain and found he was getting too dim-eyed to see anything clearly now, even in his sleep. Its true enough, but to hear it said even by women!”
And the discontented charioteer glanced back contemptuously at a group of women a short distance away, who were following with their eyes a flock of wild birds circling over the plain.
“I suppose they want those birds,” he continued, conversing familiarly with himself. “Its the way of women to want everything they see, especially if its something hard to catch, like those wild birds.”
But Laeg’s cynicism was not so deep as to keep his glance from lingering upon the bevy of graceful maidens and stately matrons. Their soft laughter reached his ear through the still evening air; and watching their animated gestures he idly speculated upon the plane he felt sure they were arranging.
“Yes; they want the birds. They wish to fasten the wings to their shoulders, to make themselves look like the women of the Sidhe. They know Cuchullain is the only man who can get the birds for them, but even Emer, his wife, is afraid to ask him. Of course they will coax that patient Ethne to do it. If she succeeds, she’ll get no thanks; and if she fails, she’ll have all the blame, and go off by herself to cry over the harsh words spoken by Cuchullain in his bad temper. That’s the way of Ethne, poor girl.”
He was right in his conjecture, for presently Ethne left the group and hesitatingly approached the giant warrior, who was still gazing vacantly at the glassy surface of the water. She touched him timidly on the shoulder. Slowly he raised his head, and still half dazed by his long staring, listened while she made her request. He rose to his feet sleepily, throwing out his brawny arms and expanding his chest as he cast a keen glance at the birds slowly circling near the ground.
“Those birds are not fit to eat,” he said, turning to her with a good-natured smile.
“But we want the wings to put on our shoulders. It would be so good of you to get them for us,” said Ethne in persuasive tones.
“If it’s flying you wish to try,” he said, with a laugh, “you’ll need better wings than those. However, you shall have them if I can get within throwing distance of them.”
He glanced around for Laeg. That far-seeing individual was already yoking the horses to the chariot. A moment later, Cuchullain and the charioteer were dashing across the plain behind the galloping steeds. As they neared the birds, Cuchullain sent missiles at them from his sling with such incredible rapidity and certainty of aim that not one of the flock escaped. Each of the women was given two of the birds; but when Ethne, who had modestly held back when the others hurried forward to meet the returning chariot, came to receive her share, not one remained.
“As usual,” said Laeg stolidly, “if anyone fails to get her portion of anything, its sure to be Ethne.”
“Too sure,” said Cuchullain, a look of compassion softening his stern features. He strode over to Ethne, and placing his hand gently on her head said: “Don’t take your disappointment to heart, little woman; when any more birds come to the plains of Murthemney, I promise to get for you the most beautiful of them all.”
“There’s a fine brace of them now, flying towards us,” exclaimed Laeg, pointing across the lake. “And I think I hear them singing. Queer birds, those; for I see a cord as of red gold between them.”
Nearer and nearer swept the strange beings of the air, and as their weird melody reached the many Ultonians at the Samhain fire, the stalwart warriors, slender maidens, the youthful and the time-worn, all felt the spell and became as statues, silent, motionless, entranced. Alone the three at the chariot felt not the binding influences of the spell. Cuchullain quietly fitted a smooth pebble into his sling. Ethne looked appealingly at Laeg, in whose sagacity she greatly trusted. A faint twinkle of the eye was the only sign that betrayed the thought of the charioteer as he tried to return her glance with a look of quiet unconcern. She hastened after Cuchullain, who had taken his stand behind a great rock on the lake shore which concealed him from the approaching birds.
“Do not try to take them,” she entreated; “there is some strange power about them which your eyes do not see; I feel it, and my heart is filled with dread.”
The young warrior made no reply, but whirling his sling above his head sent the missile with terrific force at the two swan-like voyagers of the air. It went far astray, and splashed harmlessly into the lake, throwing up a fountain of spray. Cuchullain’s face grew dark. Never before in war or the chase had he missed so easy a mark. Angrily he caught a javelin from his belt and hurled it at the birds, which had swerved from their course and were now flying swiftly away. It was a mighty cast, even for the strong arm of the mightiest warrior of Eri; and the javelin, glittering in the sun, was well on the downward curve of its long flight, its force spent, when its point touched the wing of the nearest bird. A sphere of golden flame seemed to glitter about them as they turned downward and disappeared beneath the deep waters of the lake.
Cuchullain threw himself upon the ground, leaning his broad shoulders against the rock.
“Leave me,” he said in sullen tones to Ethne; “my senses are dull with sleep from long watching at the Samhain fire. For the first time since I slew the hound of Culain my right arm has failed me. My eyes are clouded, and strange music murmurs in my heart.”
His eyes closed, his heavy breathing was broken by sighs, and anguish distorted his features. Ethne watched him awhile, and then stole quietly back to where the warriors were and said to them:
“Cuchullain lies slumbering by yonder rock, and he moans in his sleep as if the people of the Sidhe were reproaching his soul for some misdeed. I fear those birds that had the power behind them. Should we not waken him?”
But while they held council, and some were about to go and awaken him. Fergus mac Roy, foster-father of Cuchullain, arose, and all drew back in awe, for they saw the light of the Sun-God shining from his eyes, and his voice had the Druid ring as he said in stern tones of command:
“Touch him not, for he sees a vision; the people of the Sidhe are with him; and from the far distant past, even from the days of the sunken lands of the West, I see the hand of Fate reach out and grasp the warrior of Eri, to place him on a throne where he shall rule the souls of men.”
To Cuchullain it did not seem that he slept; for though his eyelids fell, his sight still rested on the calm surface of the lake, the shining sand on the shore, and the great brown rock against which he reclined. But whence came the two maidens who were walking toward him along the glistening sand? He gazed at them in speechless wonder; surely only in dreamland could so fair a vision be seen. In dreamland, yes; for a dim memory awoke in his breast that he had seen them before in the world of slumber. One wore a mantle of soft green, and her flaxen hair, strangely white but with a glint of gold, fell about her shoulders so thickly it seemed like a silken hood out of which looked a white face with gleaming violet eyes. The other maiden had dark brown eyes, very large, very luminous; her cheeks were rosy, with just a hint of bronzing by the sunshine, a dimple in her chin added to the effect of her pouting red lips; her dark brown hair was unbound and falling loosely over her deep crimson mantle, which reached from her waist in five heavy folds. The recumbent warrior felt a weird spell upon him. Powerless to move or speak, he saw the two maidens advance and stand beside him, the sunlight gleaming upon their bare arms and bosoms. They smiled upon him and uplifted their arms, and then from their fingers there rained down upon him blinding lightnings, filaments of flame that stung like whipcords, a hail of rainbow sparks that benumbed him, darting flames that pierced him like javelins; and as he gazed upward through that storm of fire, writhing in his agony, he saw still their white arms waving to and from, weaving a network of lightnings about him, their faces smiling upon him, serene and kindly; and in the eyes of her with the crimson mantle he read a tenderness all too human. Eyes that shone with tenderness; white arms that wove a rainbow-mesh of torturing fires about him; his anguish ever increasing, until he saw the arms stop waving, held for an instant aloft, and then swept downward with a torrent of flame and a mighty crash of sound like the spears of ten thousand warriors meeting in battle, and then–he was alone, staring with wide-open eyes at the blue, cloud-mirroring surface of the lakes and the white sand gleaming on the shore.
“Trouble me not with questions,” said Cuchullain to the warriors gathered about him. “My limbs are benumbed and refuse to obey me. Bear me to my sick-bed at Tete Brece.”
“Shall we not take you to Dun Imrish, or to Dun Delca, where you may be with Emer?” said they.
“No,” he replied, a shudder convulsing his strong frame; “bear me to Tete Brece.
And when they had done so, he dwelt there for a year, and on his face was always the look of a slumberer who is dreaming; not once did he smile, nor did he speak one word during that year.
When the soul has many lives
Fettered by Forgetfulness,
Hands that burst its long-worn gyves
Cruel seem and pitiless.
Yet they come all tenderly,
Loved companions of the past;
And the sword that sets us free
Turns our pain to peace at last.
What shadows turn his eyes away
Who fain would scale the heavenly heights;
There shines the beauty of a day,
And there the ancient Light of Lights.
And while he broods on visions dim
And grows forgetful of his fate,
The chariot of the Sun for him
And all the tribal stars await.
The Slumber of Cuchullain, and the Message of Angus
Within the door at Tete Brece, under the shadow of the thatch, the couch of Cuchullain was placed, so that if he willed he could gaze over the rich green fields to the distant rim of blue hills. Yet rarely opened he his eyes or gazed with outward understanding during that weary year. Often the watchers round his bed, looking on the white rigid face, wondered if he were indeed living. But they dared not awaken him, for the seers had found that his slumber was filled with mystic life, and that it was not lawful to call him forth. Was the gloom of the great warrior because he was but the shadow of his former self, or was that pale form indeed empty? So pondered Fergus, Conail, Lugard and Ethne, faithful companions. But he in himself was wrapped in a mist of visions appearing fast and vanishing faster. The fiery hands that smote him had done their work well, and his darkness had become bright with remembrance. The majesty of elder years swept by him with reproachful glance, and the hero cowered before the greatness of his own past. Born out of the womb of the earth long ago in the fulness of power–what shadow had dimmed his beauty? He tracked and retraced countless steps. Once more he held sceptred sway over races long since in oblivion. He passed beyond the common way until the powers of the vast knew and obeyed him. As he looked back there was one always with him. Lu, the Sun-God, who in the bright days of childhood had appeared to him as his little feet ran from home in search for adventures. Remote and dim, nigh and radiant, he was always there. In solemn initiations in crypts beneath the giant hills he rose up, gemmed and starred with living fires, and grew one with the God, and away, away with him he passed into the lands of the immortals, or waged wars more than human, when from the buried lands of the past first came the heroes eastward to Eri and found the terrible Fomorian enchanters dwelling in the sacred isle. In dream Cuchullain saw the earth- scorning warriors rise up and wage their battle in the bright aether, and the great Sun-Chieftain, shining like gold, lead his glittering hosts. In mountainous multitudes the giantesque phantoms reeled to and from, their mighty forms wreathed in streams of flame, while the stars paled and shuddered as they fought.
There was yet another face, another form, often beside him; whispering, luring, calling him away to he knew not what wild freedom. It was the phantom form of the child of Aed Abrait, with dark flowing tresses, mystic eyes, her face breathing the sweetness of the sun, with all the old nobility of earth, but elate and apart, as one who had been in the crystal spheres of the unseen and bathed in its immortalizing rivers and drunk the starry dews.
Come, Cu. Come, O hero,” she whispered. “There are fiery fountains of life which will renew thee. We will go where the Sidhe dwell, where the golden life-breath flows up from the mountains in a dazzling radiance to the ever-shining regions of azure and pearl under the stars. Glad is everything that lives in that place. Come, Cu, come away.” And she passed from beside him with face half turned, calling, beckoning, till in his madness he forgot the bright Sun-God and the warriors of Eri awaiting his guidance.
It was again the feast of Samhain. About twilight in the evening a shadow darkened the door. A man in blue mantle stood outside; he did not enter but looked around him a little while and then sat down, laughing softly to himself. Fergus, Conail and Lugard rose simultaneously, glad of the pretence of warning off the intruder as a relief from their monotonous watch.
“Do you not know,” said Conail sternly, “that one lies ill here who must not be disturbed?”
The stranger arose.
“I will tell you a tale,” he said. “As I was strolling through the trees I saw a radiance shining around the dun, and I saw one floating in that light like a mighty pillar of fire, or bronze ruddy and golden: a child of the Sun he seemed; the living fires curled about him and rayed from his head. He looked to the north and to the west, to the south and to the east, and over all Eri he shot his fiery breaths rainbow-colored, and the dark grew light before him where he gazed. Indeed if he who lies here were well he would be mightiest among your warriors. But I think that now he clasps hands with the heroes of the Sidhe as well, and with Druid power protects the Ultonians. I feel happy to be beside him.”
“It is Lu Lamfada guarding the hero. Now his destiny will draw nigh to him again,” thought Cu’s companions, and they welcomed the stranger.
“I see why he lies here so still,” he continued, his voice strange like one who is inspired while he speaks. “The Sidhe looked out from their mountains. They saw a hero asleep. They saw a God forgetful. They stirred him to shame by the hands of women. They showed him the past. They said to Fand and Libau, ‘Awake him. Bring him to us. Let him come on the night of Samhain.’ They showed the chosen one from afar, in a vision while hid in their mountains. The Tuatha de Danaans, the immortals, wish for Cuchullain to aid them. The daughters of Aed Abrait are their messengers. If Fand and Liban were here they would restore the hero.”
“Who are you?” asked Laeg, who had joined them.
“I am Angus, son of Aed Abrait.” While he spoke his form quivered like a smoke, twinkling in misty indistinctness in the blue twilight, and then vanished before their eyes.
“I wonder now,” muttered Laeg to himself, “if he was sent by the Sidhe, or by Liban and Fand only. When one has to deal with women everything is uncertain. Fand trusts more in her beauty to arouse him than in her message. I have seen her shadow twenty times cooing about him. It is all an excuse for love-making with her. It is just like a woman. Anything, however, would be better for him than to lie in bed.” He went off to join the others. Cuchullain was sitting up and was telling the story of what happened last Samhain.
“What should I do?” he asked.
“Go to the wise King,” said Laeg, and so they all advised, for ever since the day when he was crowned, and the Druids had touched him with fire, a light of wisdom shone about Concobar the King.
“I think you should go to the rock where the women of the Sidhe appeared to you,” said Concobar when appealed to.
So Laeg made ready the chariot and drove to the tarn. Night came ere they reached it, but the moon showed full and brilliant. Laeg waited a little way apart, while Cuchullain sat himself in the black shadow of the rock. As the warrior gazed into the dark, star-speckled surface of the waters, a brightness and a mist gathered over them, and there, standing with her robe of green down–dropping to her feet and trailing on the wave, her pale flaxen hair blown around her head, was Liban. She smiled strangely as before, looking through him with her subtle eyes.
“I am one of the Sidhe,” she said, and her voice sounded like a murmur of the water. “You also, O warrior, though forgetful, are one of us. We did not indeed come to injure you, but to awaken remembrance. For now the wild clouds of demons gathered from the neighboring isles and we wish your aid. Your strength will come back to you exultant as of old. Come with me, warrior. You will have great companions. Labraid, who wields the rapid fires as you the sword, and Fand, who has laid aside her Druid wisdom longing for you.”
“Whither must I go with you, strange woman?” asked Cuchullain.
“I will send Laeg with you,” said Cuchullain. I do not care to go to an unknown place while I have my duties here.” He then went to Laeg, asking him to go with Liban.
“He is longing to go,” thought Laeg, “but he mistrusts his power to get away. He has forgotten all he knew and did not wish to appear nothing before a woman. However, it can do no harm if I go and see what they do.”
Oh, marvel not if in our tale
The gleaming figures come and go,
More mystic splendors shine and pale
Than in an age outworn we know.
Their ignorance to us were wise:
Their sins our virtue would outshine:
A glory passed before their eyes:
We hardly dream of the divine.
In world may come romance,
With all the lures of love and glamour;
And woesome tragedy will chance
To him whom fairy forms enamour.
There slain illusions live anew
To stay the soul with coy caresses;
But he who only loves the True
Slays them again, and onward presses.
For golden chains are yet but chains,
Enchanted dreams are yet but dreaming;
And ere the soul its freedom gains
It bursts all bonds, destroys all seeming.
IV. The Maidens of the Sidhe
“Yes, I’ll go with the maid in the green mantle,” muttered Laeg to himself; “but I’ll don the crimson mantle of five folds which it is my right to wear in the land of the Sidhe, even though my earthly occupation is only the driving of a war-chariot.”
He began chanting softly; a golden gleam as of sunshine swept circling about him; then as the chant ceased a look of wild exultation came to his face, and he threw up his arms, so that for an instant he had the aspect he wore when guiding the great war-chariot of Cuchullain into the thick of battle. His swaying form fell softly upon the greensward, and above it floated a luminous figure clad in a crimson mantle, but whose face and bare arms were of the color of burnished bronze. So impassive and commanding was his face that even Liban faltered a little as she stole to his side. Cuchullain watched the two figures as they floated slowly over the dark expanse of the lake, till they suddenly disappeared, seemingly into its quiet surface. Then with his face buried in his hands he sat motionless, absorbed in deep thought, while he waited until the return of Laeg.
The recumbent form of Liban rose from the crouch where it had lain entranced. Before her stood the phantom figure of Laeg. All in the house save herself were asleep, but with the conscious sleep of the Sidhe, and their shades spoke welcome to Laeg, each saying to him in liquid tones such as come never from lips of clay:
“Welcome to you, Laeg; welcome because of her who brings you, of him who sent you, and of yourself.”
He saw about him only women of the Sidhe, and knew that he was in one of the schools established by the wise men of Eri for maidens who would devote their lives to holiness and Druid learning; maidens who should know no earthly love but fix their eyes ever on the light of the Sun-god. But not seeing Fand among them, he turned with an impatient gesture to Liban. She read his gesture aright, and said:
“My sister dwells apart; she has more knowledge, and presides over all of us.”
Leaving the room, she walked down a corridor, noiselessly save for the rustle of her long robe of green, which she drew closely about her, for the night was chill. An unaccustomed awe rested upon her, and to Laeg she whispered:
“The evil enchanters have power tonight, so that your life would be in danger if you had not the protection of a maiden of the Sun.”
But a smile wreathed for an instant the bronze-hue face of the shadowy charioteer, as he murmured in tones of kindness near to pity, softening his rude words:
“Till now nor Cuchullain nor I have ever felt the need of a woman’s protection, and I would much rather he were here now than I.”
Drawing aside a heavy curtain, Liban entered her sister’s room. They saw Fand seated at a little table. A scroll lay on it open before her, but her eyes were not fixed on it. With hands clasped under her chin she gazed into the vacancies with eyes of far-away reflection and longing. There was something pathetic in the intensity and wistfulness of the lonely figures. She turned and rose to meet them, a smile of rare tenderness lighting up her face as she saw Liban. The dim glow of a single lamp but half revealed the youthful figure, the pale, beautiful face, out of which the sun-colours had faded. Her hair of raven hue was gathered in massy coils over her head and fastened there by a spiral torque of gleaming gold. Her mantle, entirely black, which fell to her feet, made her features seem more strangely young, more startlingly in contrast with the monastic severity of the room. It was draped round with some dark unfigured hangings. A couch with a coverlet of furs, single chair of carved oak, the little table, and a bronze censer from which a faint aromatic odor escaping filled the air and stole on the sense, completed the furniture of the room, which might rather have been the cell of some aged Druid than the chamber of one of the young maidens of Eri, who were not overgiven to ascetic habits. She welcomed Laeg with the same terms of triple welcome as did the mystic children of the sun who had first gathered round him. Her brilliant eyes seemed to read deep the soul of the charioteer.
Then Liban came softly up to her, saying:
“Oh, Fand, my soul is sad this night. The dark powers are gathering their strength to assail us, and we shall need to be pure and strong. Yet you have said that you feel no longer the Presence with you; that Mannanan, the Self of the Sun, shines not in your heart!”
Fan placed her hand upon her sister’s flaxen head, saying with a voice mingled joy and pathos:
“Peace, child; you, of us all, have least to fear, for though I, alas! am forsaken, yet He who is your Father and Yourself is even now here with you.”
Liban fell on her knees, with her hands clasped and her eyes uplifted in a rapture of adoration, for above her floated one whom she well knew. Yet unheeding her and stern of glance, with his right arm outstretched, from which leaped long tongues of flame, swordlike, into space, Labraid towered above gazing upon foes unseen by them. Slowly the arm fell and the stern look departed from the face. Ancient with the youth of the Gods, it was such a face and form the toilers in the shadowy world, mindful of their starry dynasties, sought to carve in images of upright and immovable calm amid the sphinxes of the Nile or the sculptured Gods of Chaldaea. So upright and immovable in such sculptured repose appeared Labraid, his body like a bright ruby flame, sunlit from its golden heart. Beneath his brows his eyes looked full of secrecy. The air pulsing and heaving about him drove Laeg backward from the centre of the room. He appeared but a child before this potent spirit. Liban broke out into a wild chant of welcome:
“Oh see now how burning,
How radiant in might,
From battle returning
The Dragon of Light!
Where wert thou, unsleeping
Exile from the throne,
In watch o’er the weeping,
The sad and the lone.
The sun-fires of Eri
Burned low on the steep;
The watchers were weary
Or sunken in sleep;
And dread were the legions
Of demons who rose
From the uttermost regions
Of ice and of snows;
And on the red wind borne,
From wizard’s dark mind borne
On shadowy wings.
The darkness was lighted
With whirlwinds of flame;
The demons affrighted
Fled back whence they came.
For thou wert unto them
The vision that slays:
Thy fires quivered through them
In arrowy rays.
Oh, light amethystine,
Thy shadow inspire,
And fill with the pristine
Vigor of fire.
Though thought like a fountain
Pours dream upon dream,
Unscaled is the mountain
Where thou still dost gleam,
And shinest afar like
The dawning of day,
Immortal and starlike
In rainbow array.”
But he, the shining one, answered, and his voice had that melody which only those know whom the Sun-breath has wafted into worlds divine:
“Vaunt not, poor mortal one, nor claim knowledge when the Gods know not. He who is greatest among all the sons of evil now waits for the hour to strike when he may assail us and have with him all the hosts of the foes of light. What may be the issue of the combat cannot be foreseen by us. Yet mortals, unwise, ever claim to know when even the Gods confess ignorance; for pride blinds all mortals, and arrogance is born of their feebleness.”
Unabashed she cried out:
“Then rejoice, for we have awakened Cu, the warrior-magician of old times, and his messenger is her.”
Then he answered gently, pityingly:
“We need the help of each strong soul, and you have done well to arouse that slumbering giant. If through his added strength we conquer, then will he be the saviour of Eri; beloved by the Gods, he will cease to be a wild warrior on earth, and become a leader of mortals, aiding them on the way to the immortals. Wisely have you awakened him, and yet–“
He smiled, and such was the pity in his smiling glance that Liban bowed her head in humiliation. When she raised it he was gone, and Laeg also had vanished. She arose, and with a half-sob threw herself into the arms of her sister. So they stood, silent, with tearless eyes; for they were too divine for tears, although, alas! too human.
Slowly the chariot rolled on its homeward way, for Laeg, seeing the weakness and weariness of Cuchullain, held the great steeds in check; their arched necks and snorting breath resenting the restraint, while the impatient stamping of their hoofs struck fire from the pebbly road.
“Well,” said Cuchullain moodily, “tell me what happened after you went away with that woman of the Sidhe.”
Briefly and without comment of his own Laeg stated what he had seen. Then long Cuchullain pondered; neither spoke, and the silence was broken only by the stamping of the steeds and the rumble of the chariot wheels. Dark clouds drifted athwart the moon, and the darkness gave more freedom of speech, for Cuchullain said in measured, expressionless tones:
“And what do you think of all this?”
“What do I think?” burst forth Laeg with sudden fire; “I think you had better be leaving those women of the Sidhe alone, and they you. That Fand would lose her soul for love, and the spell they’ve cast over you is evil, or it wouldn’t make a warrior like you as helpless as a toddling babe.”
In letting loose his pent-up wrath Laeg had unconsciously loosened as well the reined-in steeds, who sprang forward impetuously, and the jolting of the car was all that Cuchullain could bear in his enfeebled state. Recovering himself, the charioteer drew them in check again, inwardly upbraiding himself for carelessness.
Sorrowful and broken was the voice of the warrior as he said:
“On the morrow, Laeg, you shall bear a message to Emer. Tell her the Sidhe have thrown a spell of helplessness upon me while deceiving me with false visions of my aiding them in their war with the evil enchanters. Ask Emer to come to me, for her presence may help to rouse me from this spell that benumbs my body and clouds my mind.”
Then Laeg sought to console him, saying:
“No, no; the Sidhe wrong no one. Their message to you was true; but their messengers were women, and you were a warrior. That is why the mischance came, for it is ever the way with a woman to become foolish over a warrior, and then there is always a muddle. And when Emer comes–,” he checked his indiscreet utterance by pretending to have a difficulty in restraining the horses, and then added confusedly: “Besides, I’d rather be in your plight than in Fand’s.”
“Has Emer come?” asked Cuchullain, drawing himself up on his couch and resting on his elbow.
“Yes,” said Laeg dejectedly; “I have brought her. She has been talking to me most of the journey. Now she’ll be after talking to you, but you needn’t mind; it isn’t her ususal way, and she isn’t as unreasonable as might be expected. She puts most of the blame of your illness on me, though perhaps that is because it was me she was talking to. Insists that as I can go to the Plain of Fire where the Sidhe live I ought to be able to find a way of curing you. She has expressed that idea to me many times, with a fluency and wealth of illustration that would make a bard envious. Here she comes now. I’ll just slip out and see if the horses are being properly cared for.”
He had not overstated the case, for the sweet face of Emer was clouded with wrath as she approached the sick-bed of her husband. Bitterly she reproached him for what she claimed was only a feigned illness, and expressed her conviction that no theory would account for his conduct save that, faithless to her his wife, he had fallen in love. But Cuchullain made no answer, for not only was he invincible in battle, but also wise in the matter of holding his tongue when a woman warred against him with words.
“You are looking stronger,” said Laeg, when next he saw him alone.
“Yes,” he returned, “the speech of Emer has roused me a little from my torpor. I have been thinking that possibly we were wrong in disregarding the message brought by the women of the Sidhe. They surely have power to break this spell, and doubtless would have done so had you not fled from them so inconsiderately.”
“I was thinking the same when Emer was coming here with me,” observed Laeg. “Her speech roused me a little too.”
Cuchullain was silent awhile and then said reflectively:
“Do you think we could find Liban again?”
“There would be no difficulty about that,” Laeg replied drily.
“Then,” said Cuchullain with sudden energy, “let us go once more to the rock of the visions.”
Our souls give battle when the host
Of lurid lives that lurk in Air,
And Ocean’s regions nethermost,
Come forth from every loathsome lair:
For then are cloudland battles fought
With spears of lightning, swords of flame,
No quarter given, none besought,
Till to the darkness whence they came
The Sons of Night are hurled again.
Yet while the reddened skies resound
The wizard souls of evil men
Within the demon ranks are found,
While pure and strong the heroes go
To join the strife, and reck no odds,
For they who face the wizard foe
Clasp hands heroic with the gods.
What is the love of shadowy lips
That know not what they seek or press,
From whom the lure for ever slips
And fails their phantom tenderness?
The mystery and light of eyes
That near to mine grow dim and cold;
They move afar in ancient skies
Mid flame and mystic darkness rolled.
Oh, hero, as thy heart o’erflows
In tender yielding unto me,
A vast desire awakes and grows
Unto forgetfulness of thee.
V. The Mantle of Mannanan
Again Liban stood before them, and her eyes were full of reproach.
“You doubt the truth of my message,” she said. “Come, then, to the Plain of Fire, and you shall see the one who sent me.”
“I doubt you not,” said Cuchullain quietly; “but it is not fitting that I should go when the message is brought by a woman, for such is the warning I have had in vision from Lu Lamfada. Laeg shall go with you, and if he brings back the same message, then I shall do the bidding of the Sidhe, and wage war against the evil enchanters, even as when a lad I vanquished the brook of wizards at Dun-mic-Nectan.”
“Where did Liban take you this time, Laeg? Have you brought back a message from the Sidhe?”
“I have seen the Chief,” said Laeg, whose doubts had vanished and whose whole manner had changed. “Cuchullain, you must go. You remember how we went together to Brusna by the Boyne, and what wonders they showed us in the sacred crypt. Yet this is a place more marvelous–thrice. Well indeed did Liban call it the Plain of Fire, for a breath of fire is in the air for leagues and leagues around. On the lake where the Sidhe dwell the fishers row by and see nothing, or, mayhap, a flicker of phantasmal trees around the dun. These trees are rooted in a buried star beneath the earth; when its heart pulsates they shine like gold, aye, and are fruited with ruby lights. Indeed this Labraid is one of the Gods. I saw him come through the flaming rivers of the underworld. He was filled with the radiance. I am not given to dread the Sidhe, but there was that in him which compelled awe: for oh, he came from the homes that were anciently ours–ours who are fallen, and whose garments once bright are stained by the lees of time. He greeted me kindly. He knew me by my crimson mantle with five folds. He asked for you; indeed they all wish to have you there.”
“Did he say aught further?”
“No, he spoke but little; but as I returned by Mag Luada I had a vision. I saw you standing under the sacred Tree of Victory. There were two mighty ones, one on each side of you, but they seemed no greater than you.”
“Was Fand there?” asked Cuchullain.
“Yes,” said Laeg reluctantly; “I saw her and spoke to her, although I did not wish to. I feared for myself. Ethne and Emer are beautiful women, but this woman is not like them. She is half divine. The holiest Druids might lose his reason over her.”
“Let us go thither,” said Cuchullain.
The night was clear, breathless, pure as diamond. The giant lights far above floated quietly in the streams of space. Below slept the lake mirroring the shadowy blue of the mountains. The great mounds, the homes of the Sidhe, were empty; but over them floated a watchful company, grave, majestic, silent, waiting. In stately procession their rich, gleaming figures moved to and fro in groups of twos and threes, emblazoning the dusky air with warm colors. A little apart, beyond the headland at the island’s edge, two more commanding than the rest communed together. The wavering water reflected head-long their shining figures in its dark depths; above them the ancient blue of the night rose as a crown. These two were Labraid and the warrior of Murthemney restored to all his Druid power. Terrible indeed in its beauty, its power, its calm, was this fiery phantasmal form beside the king of the Sidhe.
“We came to Eri many, many ages ago,” said Labraid; “from a land the people of today hold no memory of. Mighty for good and for evil were the dwellers in that land, but its hour struck and the waters of the ocean entomb it. In this island, which the mighty Gods of Fire kept apart and sacred, we made our home. But after long years a day came when the wise ones must needs depart from this also. They went eastward. A few only remained to keep alive the tradition of what was, the hope of what will be again. For in this island, it is foretold, in future ages will arise a light which will renew the children of time. But now the world’s great darkness has come. See what exhalations arise! What demons would make Eri their home!”
Away at the eastern verge a thick darkness was gathering; a pitchy blackness out of which a blood–red aerial river rolled and shot its tides through the arteries of the night. It came nigher. It was dense with living creatures, larvae, horrible shapes with waving tendrils, white withered things restless and famished, hoglike faces, monstrosities. As it rolled along there was a shadowy dropping over hamlet and village and field.
“Can they not be stayed? Can they not be stayed?” rang the cry of Fand.
The stern look on Cuchullain’s face deepened.
“Is it these pitiful spectres we must wage war against? Labraid, it is enough. I will go–alone. Nay, my brother, one is enough for victory.”
Already he was oblivious of the Sidhe, the voices of Fand and Laeg calling him. A light like a wonder-mist broke dazzling about him. Through a mist of fire, an excess of light, they saw a transcendent form of intensest gold treading the air. Over the head of the god a lightning thread like a serpent undulated and darted. It shed a thousand dazzling rays; it chanted in a myriad tones as it went forward. Wider grew the radiant sphere and more triumphant the chant as he sped onward and encountered the overflow of hell. Afar off the watchers saw and heard the tumult, cries of a horrible conflict, agonies of writhing and burning demons scorched and annihilated, reeling away before the onset of light. On and still on he sped, now darkened and again blazing like the sun.
“Look! look!” cried Laeg, breathless with exultation as the dazzling phantom towered and waved its arms on the horizon.
“They lied who said he was powerless,” said Fand, no less exultant.
“Cu, my darling,” murmured the charioteer; “I know now why I loved you, what burned within you.”
“Shall we not go and welcome him when he returns?” said Liban.
“I should not advise it,” Laeg answered. “Is it to meet that fury of fire when he sinks back blind and oblivious? He would slay his dearest friend. I am going away from here as fast as I can.”
Through the dark forests at dawn the smoke began to curl up from dun and hamlet, and, all unconscious of the war waged over their destinies, children awoke to laugh and men and women went forth to breathe the sweet air of morning.
Cuchullain started from a dream of more ancient battles, of wars in heaven. Through the darkness of the room he saw the shadowy forms of the two daughters of Aed Abrait; not as before, the mystic maidens armed with Druid power, but women, melting, tender, caressing. Violet eyes shining with gratitude; darker eyes burning with love, looked into his. Misty tresses fell over him.
“I know not how the battle went,” he sighed. “I remember the fire awoke. …. Lu was with me. …. I fell back in a blinding mist of flame and forgot everything.”
“Doubt it not. Victory went with thee, warrior,” said Liban. “We saw thee: it was wonderful. How the seven splendors flashed and the fiery stars roved around you and scattered the demons!”
“Oh, do not let your powers sink in sleep again,” broke forth Fand. “What are the triumphs of earthly battles to victories like these? What is rule over a thousand warriors to kingship over the skyey hosts? Of what power are spear and arrow beside the radiant sling of Lu? Do the war-songs of the Ultonians inspire thee ever like the terrible chant of fire? After freedom can you dwell in these gloomy duns? What are the princeliest of them beside the fiery halls of Tir-na-noge and the flame-built cities of the Gods? As for me, I would dwell where the great ones of ancient days have gone, and worship at the shrine of the silent and unutterable Awe.”
“I would go indeed,” said Cuchullain; “but still–but still–: it is hard to leave the green plains of Murthemney, and the Ultonians who have fought by my side, and Laeg, and–“
“Laeg can come with us. Nor need Conchobar, or Fergus or Conail be forgotten. Far better can you aid them with Druid power than with the right arm a blow may make powerless in battle. Go with Laeg to Iban-Cind-Trachta. Beside the yew-tree there is a dun. There you can live hidden from all. It is a place kept sacred by the might of the Sidhe. I will join you there.”
A month passed. In a chamber of the Dun the Yew-tree, Fand, Cuchullain and Laeg were at night. The two latter sat by an oaken table and tried by divination to peer into the future. Fand, withdrawn in the dark shadow of a recess, lay on a couch and looked on. Many thoughts went passing through her mind. Now the old passion of love would rise in her heart to be quenched by a weary feeling of futility, and then a half-contempt would curl her lips as she saw the eagerness of her associates. Other memories surged up. “Oh, Mannanan, Father-Self, if thou hadst not left me and my heart had not turned away! It was not a dream when I met thee and we entered the Ocean of Fire together. Our beauty encompassed the world. Radiant as Lu thy brother of the Sun we were. Far away as the dawn seems the time. How beautiful, too, was that other whose image in the hero enslaves my heart. Oh, that he would but know himself, and learn that on this path the greatest is the only risk worth taking! And now he holds back the charioteer also and does him wrong.” Just then something caused her to look up. She cried out, “Laeg, Laeg, do you see anything?”
“What is it?” said Laeg. Then he also looked and started. “Gods!” he murmured. “Emer! I would rather face a tempest of Formorian enchanters.”
“Do you not see?” repeated Fand scornfully. “It is Emer the daughter of Forgall. Has she also become one of the Sidhe that she journeys thus?”
“She comes in dream,” said Laeg.
“Why do you intrude upon our seclusion here? You know my anger is no slight thing,” broke out Cuchullain, in ready wrath hiding his confusion. The shadow of Emer turned, throwing back the long, fair hair from her face the better to see him. There was no dread on it, but only outraged womanly dignity. She spake and her voice seemed to flow from a passionate heart far away brooding in sorrowful loneliness.
“Why do I come? Has thou not degraded me before all the maidens of Eri by forsaking me for a woman of the Sidhe without a cause? You ask why I come when every one of the Ultonians looks at me in questioning doubt and wonder! But I see you have found a more beautiful partner.”
“We came hither, Laeg and I, to learn the lore of the Sidhe. Why should you not leave me here for a time, Emer? This maiden is of wondrous magical power: she is a princess in her own land, and is as pure and chaste to this hour as you.”
“I see indeed she is more beautiful than I am. That is why you are drawn away. Her face has not grown familiar. Everything that is new or strange you follow. The passing cheeks are ruddier than the pale face which has shared your troubles. What you know is weariness, and you leave it to learn what you do not know. The Ultonians falter while you are absent from duty in battle and council, and I, whom you brought with sweet words when half a child from my home, am left alone. Oh, Cuchullain, beloved, I was once dear to thee, and if today or tomorrow were our first meeting I should be so again.”
A torrent of self-reproach and returning love overwhelmed him. “I swear to you,” he said brokenly, through fast-flowing tears, “you are immortally dear to me, Emer.”
“Then you leave me,” burst forth Fand, rising to her full height, her dark, bright eyes filled with a sudden fire, an image of mystic indignation and shame.
“If indeed,” said Emer softly, “joy and love and beauty are more among the Sidhe than where we dwell in Eri, then it were better for thee to remain.”
“No, he shall not now,” said Fand passionately. “It is I whom he shall leave. I long foresaw this moment, but ran against fate like a child. Go, warrior, Cu; tear this love out of thy heart as I out of mine. Go, Laeg, I will not forget thee. Thou alone hast thought about these things truly. But now–I cannot speak.” She flung herself upon the couch in the dark shadow and hid her face away from them.
The pale phantom wavered and faded away, going to one who awoke from sleep with a happiness she could not understand. Cuchullain and Laeg passed out silently into the night. At the door of the dun a voice they knew not spake:
“So, warrior, you return. It is well. Not yet for thee is the brotherhood of the Sidhe, and thy destiny and Fand’s lie far apart. Thine is not so great but it will be greater, in ages yet to come, in other lands, among other peoples, when the battle fury in thee shall have turned to wisdom and anger to compassion. Nations that lie hidden in the womb of time shall hail thee as friend, deliverer and saviour. Go and forget what has passed. This also thou shalt forget. It will not linger in thy mind; but in thy heart shall remain the memory and it will urge thee to nobler deeds. Farewell, warrior, saviour that is to be!”
As the two went along the moon lit shore mighty forms followed, and there was a waving of awful hands over them to blot out memory.
In the room where Fand lay with mad beating heart tearing itself in remorse, there was one watching with divine pity. Mannanan, the Golden Glory, the Self of the Sun. “Weep not, O shadow; thy days of passion and pain are over.” breathed the Pity in her breast. “Rise up, O Ray, from thy sepulchre of forgetfulness. Spirit come forth to they ancient and immemorial home.” She rose up and stood erect. As the Mantle of Mannanan enfolded her, no human words could tell the love, the exultation, the pathos, the wild passion of surrender, the music of divine and human life interblending. Faintly we echo–like this spake the Shadow and like this the Glory.
Who art thou, O Glory,
In flame from the deep,
Where stars chant their story,
Why trouble my sleep?
I hardly had rested,
My dreams wither now:
Why comest thou crested
And gemmed on they brow?
Up, Shadow, and follow
The way I will show;
The blue gleaming hollow
To-night we will know,
And rise mid the vast to
The fountain of days;
From whence we had pass to
The parting of ways.
I know thee, O Glory:
Thine eyes and thy brow
With white fire all hoary
Come back to me now.
Together we wandered
In ages agone;
Our thoughts as we pondered
Were stars at the dawn.
The glory has dwindled,
My azure and gold:
Yet you keep enkindled
The Sun-fire of old.
My footsteps are tied to
The heath and the stone;
My thoughts earth-allied-to–
Ah! leave me alone.
Go back, thou of gladness,
Nor wound me with pain,
Nor spite me with madness,
Nor come nigh again.
Why tremble and weep now,
Whom stars once obeyed?
Come forth to the deep now
And be not afraid.
The Dark One is calling,
I know, for his dreams
Around me are falling
In musical streams.
A diamond is burning
In depths of the Lone
Thy spirit returning
May claim for its throne.
In flame-fringed islands
Its sorrows shall cease,
Absorbed in the silence
And quenched in the peace.
Come lay thy poor head on
My breast where it glows
With love ruby-red on
Thy heart for its woes.
My power I surrender:
To thee it is due:
Come forth, for the splendor
Is waiting for you.
–November 15, 1895-March 15, 1896