It was the night of St. Stephen, and Teig sat alone by his fire with naught in his cupboard but a pinch of tea and a bare mixing of meal, and a heart inside of him as soft and warm as the ice on the water-bucket outside the door. The tuft was near burnt on the hearth—a handful of golden cinders left, just; and Teig took to counting them greedily on his fingers.
“There’s one, two, three, an’ four an’ five,” he laughed. “Faith, there be more bits o’ real gold hid undther the loose clay in the corner.”
It was the truth; and it was the scraping and scrooching for the last piece that had left Teig’s cupboard bare of a Christmas dinner. “Gold is betther nor eatin’ an’ dthrinkin’. An’ if ye have naught to give, there’ll be naught asked of ye;” and he laughed again. He was thinking of the neighbours, and the doles of food and piggins of milk that would pass over their thresholds that night to the vagabonds and paupers who were sure to come begging. And on the heels of that thought followed another: who would be giving old Barney his dinner? Barney lived a stone’s throw from Teig, alone, in a wee tumbled-in cabin; and for a score of years past Teig had stood on the doorstep every Christmas Eve, and, making a hollow of his two hands, had called across the road: “Hey, there, Barney, will ye come over for a sup?”
And Barney had reached for his crutches—there being but one leg to him—and had come.
“Faith,” said Teig, trying another laugh, “Barney can fast for the once; ’twill be all the same in a month’s time.” And he fell to thinking of the gold again. A knock came at the door. Teig pulled himself down in his chair where the shadow would cover him, and held his tongue.
“Teig, Teig!” It was the widow O’Donnelly’s voice. “If ye are there, open your door. I have not got the pay for the spriggin’ this month, an’ the childher are needin’ food.”
But Teig put the leash on his tongue, and never stirred till he heard the tramp of her feet going on to the next cabin. Then he saw to it that the door was tight-barred. Another knock came, and it was a stranger’s voice this time: “The other cabins are filled; not one but has its hearth crowded; will ye take us in—the two of us? The wind bites mortal sharp, not a morsel o’ food have ne tasted this day. Masther, will ye take us in?”
But Teig sat on, a-holding his tongue; and the tramp of the strangers’ feet passed down the road. Others took their place—small feet, running. It was the miller’s wee Cassie, and she called out as she ran by.
“Old Barney’s watchin’ for ye. Ye’ll not be forgettin’ him, will ye, Teig?”
And then the child broke into a song, sweet and clear, as she passed down the road:
“Listen all ye, ’tis the Feast o’ St. Stephen, Mind that ye keep it, this holy even. Open your door an’ greet ye the stranger— For ye mind that the wee Lord had naught but a manger. Mhuire as truagh!
“Feed ye the hungry an’ rest ye the weary, This ye must do for the sake of Our Mary. ‘Tis well that ye mind—ye who sit by the fire— That the Lord he was born in a dark and cold byre. Mhuire as truagh!”
Teig put his fingers deep in his ears. “A million murdthering curses on them that won’t let me be! Can’t a man try to keep what is his without bein’ pesthered by them that has only idled an’ wasted their days?”
And then the strange thing happened: hundreds and hundreds of wee lights began dancing outside the window, making the room bright; the hands of the clock began chasing each other round the dial, and the bolt of the door drew itself out. Slowly, without a creak or a cringe, the door opened, and in there trooped a crowd of the Good People. Their wee green cloaks were folded close about them, and each carried a rush candle.
Teig was filled with a great wonderment, entirely, when he saw the fairies, but when they saw him they laughed.
“We are takin’ the loan o’ your cabin this night, Teig,” said they. “Ye are the only man hereabout with an empty hearth, an’ we’re needin’ one.”
Without saying more, they bustled about the room making ready. They lengthened out the table and spread and set it; more of the Good People trooped in, bringing stools and food and drink. The pipers came last, and they sat themselves around the chimney-piece a-blowing their chanters and trying the drones. The feasting began and the pipers played and never had Teig seen such a sight in his life. Suddenly a wee man sang out: “Clip, clap, clip, clap, I wish I had my wee red cap!” And out of the air there tumbled the neatest cap Teig ever laid his two eyes on. The wee man clapped it on his head, crying: “I wish I was in Spain!” and—whist—up the chimney he went, and away out of sight.
It happened just as I am telling it. Another wee man called for his cap, and away he went after the first. And then another and another until the room was empty and Teig sat alone again.
“By my soul,” said Teig, “I’d like to thravel that way myself! It’s a grand savin’ of tickets an’ baggage; an’ ye get to a place before ye’ve had time to change your mind. Faith there is no harm done if I thry it.”
So he sang the fairies’ rhyme and out of the air dropped a wee cap for him. For a moment the wonder had him, but the next he was clapping the cap on his head and crying: “Spain!”
Then—whist—up the chimney he went after the fairies, and before he had time to let out his breath he was standing in the middle of Spain, and strangeness all about him.
He was in a great city. The doorways of the houses were hung with flowers and the air was warm and sweet with the smell of them. Torches burned along the streets, sweetmeat-sellers went about crying their wares, and on the steps of the cathedral crouched a crowd of beggars.
“What’s the meanin’ o’ that?” asked Teig of one of the fairies. “They are waiting for those that are hearing mass. When they come out, they give half of what they have to those that have nothing, so on this night of all the year there shall be no hunger and no cold.”
And then far down the street came the sound of a child’s voice, singing: “Listen all ye, ’tis the Feast o’ St. Stephen, Mind that ye keep it, this holy even”. “Curse it!” said Teig; “can a song fly afther ye?”
And then he heard the fairies cry “Holland!” and cried “Holland!” too.
In one leap he was over France, and another over Belgium; and with the third he was standing by long ditches of water frozen fast, and over them glided hundreds upon hundreds of lads and maids. Outside each door stood a wee wooden shoe empty. Teig saw scores of them as he looked down the ditch of a street.
“What is the meanin’ o’ those shoes? ” he asked the fairies.
“Ye poor lad!” answered the wee man next to him; “are ye not knowing anything? This is the Gift Night of the year, when every man gives to his neighbour.”
A child came to the window of one of the houses, and in her hand was a lighted candle. She was singing as she put the light down close to the glass, and Teig caught the words: “Open your door an’ greet ye the stranger— For ye mind that the wee Lord had naught but a manger. Mhuire as truagh!”
“‘Tis the de’il’s work!” cried Teig, and he set the red cap more firmly on his head.
“I’m for another country.”
I cannot be telling you a half of the adventures Teig had that night, nor half the sights that he saw. But he passed by fields that held sheaves of grain for the birds and doorsteps that held bowls of porridge for the wee creatures. He saw lighted trees, sparkling and heavy with gifts; and he stood outside the churches and watched the crowds pass in, bearing gifts to the Holy Mother and Child. At last the fairies straightened their caps and cried, “Now for the great hall in the King of England’s palace!”
Whist—and away they went, and Teig after them; and the first thing he knew he was in London, not an arm’s length from the King’s throne. It was a grander sight than he had seen in any other country. The hall was filled entirely with lords and ladies; and the great doors were open for the poor and the homeless to come in and warm themselves by the King’s fire and feast from the King’s table. And many a hungry soul did the King serve with his own hands.
Those that had anything to give gave it in return. It might be a bit of music played on a harp or a pipe, or it might be a dance or a song; but more often it was a wish, just, for good luck and safekeeping.
Teig was so taken up with the watching that he never heard the fairies when they wished themselves on; moreover, he never saw the wee girl that was fed, and went laughing away. But he heard a bit of her song as she passed through the door: “Feed ye the hungry an’ rest ye the weary, This ye must do for the sake of Our Mary.”
Then the anger had Teig. “I’ll stop your pestherin’ tongue, once an’ for all time!” and, catching the cap from his head, he threw it after her. No sooner was the cap gone than every soul in the hall saw him. The next moment they were about him, catching at his coat and crying: “Where is he from, what does he here? Bring him before the King!” And Teig was dragged along by a hundred hands to the throne where the King sat.
“He was stealing food,” cried one. “He was robbing the King’s jewels,” cried another. “He looks evil,” cried a third. “Kill him!”
And in a moment all the voices took it up and the hall rang with: “Aye, kill him, kill him!”
Teig’s legs took to trembling, and fear put the leash on his tongue; but after a long silence he managed to whisper: “I have done evil to no one—no one!”
“Maybe,” said the King; “but have ye done good? Come, tell us, have ye given aught to any one this night? If ye have, we will pardon ye.”
Not a word could Teig say—fear tightened the leash—for he was knowing full well there was no good to him that night.
“Then ye must die,” said the King. “Will ye try hanging or beheading?”
“Hanging, please, your Majesty,” said Teig.
The guards came rushing up and carried him off.
But as he was crossing the threshold of the hall a thought sprang at him and held him.
“Your Majesty,” he called after him, “will ye grant me a last request?”
“I will,” said the King.
“Thank ye. There’s a wee red cap that I’m mortal fond of, and I lost it a while ago; if I could be hung with it on, I would hang a deal more comfortable.”
The cap was found and brought to Teig.
“Clip, clap, clip, clap, for my wee red cap, I wish I was home,” he sang.
Up and over the heads of the dumfounded guard he flew, and—whist—and away out of sight. When he opened his eyes again, he was sitting dose by his own hearth, with the fire burnt low. The hands of the clock were still, the bolt was fixed firm in the door. The fairies’ lights were gone, and the only bright thing was the candle burning in old Barney’s cabin across the road.
A running of feet sounded outside, and then the snatch of a song “‘Tis well that ye mind—ye who sit by the fire— That the Lord he was born in a dark and cold byre. Mhuire as traugh!”
“Wait ye, whoever ye are!” and Teig was away to the corner, digging fast at the loose clay, as a terrier digs at a bone. He filled his hands full of the shining gold, then hurried to the door, unbarring it.
The miller’s wee Cassie stood there, peering at him out of the darkness.
“Take those to the widow O’Donnelly, do ye hear? And take the rest to the store. Ye tell Jamie to bring up all that he has that is eatable an’ dhrinkable; and to the neighbours ye say, ‘Teig’s keepin’ the feast this night.’ Hurry now!”
Teig stopped a moment on the threshold until the tramp of her feet had died away; then he made a hollow of his two hands and called across the road: “Hey there, Barney, will ye come over for a sup?”
The Voyage of the Wee Red Cap in The Children’s Book of Christmas Stories