The Laughter of Peterkin

         "the story this
Of her, the morning star of loveliness,
Unhappy Helen of a western land."

     "Deidre."       Trs. by Dr. Douglas Hyde

 

Darthool and the Sons of Usna

The story I will tell you now, Peterkin, more beautiful, though not so old.

In all the regions of the Gael throughout Scotland, and in every isle, from Arran and Islay in the south, to Iona in the west, and Tiree in mid-sea, and the Outer Hebrides, there is no story of the old far-off days so well known as that of Darthool.

She is it who in Ireland is called Deirthré or Deirdré; and in Ireland to this day there is not a cowherd who has not heard of Deirdré. Her beauty filled the old world of the Gael with a sweet, wonderful, and abiding rumour. The name of Deirdré has been as a lamp to a thousand poets. In a land of heroes and brave and beautiful women, how shall one name survive? Yet to this day and for ever men will remember Deirdré, the torch of men's thoughts, and Grainne whom Diarmid loved and died for, and Maev who ruled mightily, and Fand whose white feet trod faery dew, and many another. For beauty is the most excellent sweet thing in all the world, and though of it a few perish, and a myriad die from knowing nothing of it, beneath it the nations of men move forward as their one imperishable star. Therefore he who adds to the beauty of the world is of the sons of God. He who destroys or debases beauty is of the darkness, and shall have darkness for his reward.

The day will come, Peterkin, when you will find a rare and haunting music in these names. They will bring you a lost music, a lost world and imperishable beauty. You will dwell with them, till you love Deirdré as did the sons of Usna, and would die for her, or live to see her starry eyes; till you look longingly upon the Grainne of your dreams, and cry as Diarmid did, when he asked her, as death menaced them, if even yet she would go back, and she answered that she would not: "Then go forward, O Grainne!"

Many poets and shennachies have related this tale. I have heard it given now this way, and now that; sometimes with new names and scenes, sometimes with other beginnings and endings; but at heart it is ever the same. Nor does it matter whether the father of Deirdré be Felim, the warrior bard of the Ultonians, or Malcolm the Harper, or any other; or whether the fair and sweet beauty of the world be called Deirdré or Darthool. But as here in our own land she is called Darthool, that I will call her.

I will tell the story as it is told in the old chronicles, and to this day, and if I add aught to it, that shall only be what I myself heard when I was young, and had from the lips of an old woman, Barabal Mac-Aodh, who was my nurse. She came out of Tiree or Coll, I forget which.

Well, in the ancient dim days when Emania was the capital of the Ultonians, the fair and wonderful capital of the kingdom of Ulster, and before Maev, the queen of the south, had buried the chivalry of the north in dust and blood, there came into the realm of Concobar the Ultonian king, whom some call Conor and some Connachar, three of the noblest and fairest of the Youths of the world. These are they who then bore, and in all the years since have borne, the name of the Sons of Usna, who was himself, some say, a feudal king, in Alba.¹

¹ Alba. That is, Gaelic Scotland, and in particular Argyll.

It is because of these three heroes that this story I am relating is often called the story of the Sons of Usna. But first, I have that to tell you which precedes the time when Nathos,² and Ailne, and Ardan, stood in the house of Concobar the high king.

² Naois in the old Irish Gaelic.

This Concobar was a great prince. He was known as Concobar MacNessa, for though he was the son of Fatna the Wise, son of Ross the Red, son of Rory, Nessa his mother was a famous queen, and had indeed by her beauty and her wiles brought Concobar to the overlordship of Uladh ³ when he was yet a youth.

³ Ulster.

In many of the tales of the old far-off days, you will hear the rumour of the splendour and wonder of the city of Emania. In Concobar's time it was called Emain Macha, for it had been built by a great and beautiful queen--Macha Mongruay, Macha of the Ruddy Hair.

A thousand times have poets chanted of Emain Macha, and in the ancient days the bards loved to sing also of Macha herself. Here is an old far-off lay:

"O 'tis a good house, and a palace fair, the dun of Macha,
And happy with a great household is Macha there;
Druids she had, and bards, minstrels, harpers, knights,
Hosts of servants she had, and wonders beautiful and rare,
But nought so wonderful and sweet as her face, queenly fair,
     O Macha of the Ruddy Hair!

The colour of her great dun is the shining whiteness of lime,
And within it are floors strewn with green rushes and couches white,
Soft wondrous silks and blue gold-claspt mantles and furs
Are there, and jewelled golden cups for revelry by night:
Thy grianan of gold and glass is filled with sunshine-light,
     O Macha, queen by day, queen by night!

Beyond the green portals, and the brown and red thatch of wings
Striped orderly, the wings of innumerous stricken birds,
A wide shining floor reaches from wall to wall, wondrously carven
Out of a sheet of silver, whereon are graven swords
Intricately ablaze; mistress of many hoards
     Art thou, Macha of few words!

Fair indeed is thy couch, but fairer still is thy throne,
A chair it is, all of a blaze of wonderful yellow gold:
There thou sittest, and watchest the women going to and fro,
Each in garments fair and with long locks twisted fold in fold:
With the joy that is in thy house men would not grow old,
     O Macha, proud, austere, cold.

Of a surety there is much joy to be had of thee and thine,
There in the song-sweet sunlit bowers in that place
Wounded men might sink in sleep and be well content
So to sleep, and to dream perchance, and know no other grace
Than to wake and look betimes on thy proud queenly face,
     O Macha of the Proud Face!

And if there be any here who wish to know more of this wonder,
Go, you will find all as I have shown, as I have said:
From beneath its portico thatched with wings of birds blue and yellow
Reaches a green lawn, where a fount is fed
From crystal and gems: of crystal and gold each bed
     In the house of Macha of the Ruddy Head.

In that great house where Macha the queen has her pleasaunce
There is everything in the whole world that a man might desire.
God is my witness that if I say little it is for this,
That I am grown faint with wonder, and can no more admire,
But say this only, that I live and die in the fire
Of thine eyes, O Macha, my desire,
     With thine eyes of fire!"¹

¹ This song, adapted to Macha, is founded upon a portion of the poem by    Coel O'Neamhain, in honour of a beautiful queen named Crede, as translated by Professor Sullivan and others.

It was in this wonderful forefront of Ulster that Concobar reigned. The fame of Emain Macha was throughout Gaeldom; and there was no man or woman who, as the days went by, did not hear of the greatness of Concobar.

On a day of the days, the king went with his chief lords on a visit to the dun of Felim, a warrior and harper whom he loved. There was to be great feasting, and all men were glad. Felim himself rejoiced, though he would fain have had the king come to him a few days later, for his wife was heavy with child, and looked for her hour that very day or the next.

In the midmost of the feast, Concobar saw that Cathba, an aged Druid who had accompanied him, was staring into the other world that is about us.

"Speak, Cathba," he said. "There is no man in all Erin who has wisdom like unto thine. What is it that thou seest, with the inner sight that I perceive well is now upon thee?

"Old as I am with the heavy burden of years and sorrow, O Concobar, did I not beg that I might come with thee to this festival at the dun of Felim? And that was not because I wearied to hear strange harping and singing, good and fine and better than our own as this harping is here, in the house of Felim; for I am old and weary, and care more to listen to the wind in the grass, or to the sighing upon the hill, than to any music of war or love."

"Then what was it that was in thy mind, Cathba?"

"This, O king. I saw a shadow arise whenever I thought of our Ultonian realm, and I felt within me the burden of a new prophecy. Nevertheless, I was moved by naught till I entered the dun of Felim, and now I know."

"Speak," said the king; while all there listened with awe as well as eagerness, for Cathba was the wisest of the Druids, and knew many mysteries, and what he had foretold had ever come to pass. Slowly, the white-haired Druid looked around the faces of all seated there. Then he looked at the king. Then he looked at Felim.

"To thee, O Felim, shall be born this night a sting, a sword, a battering-ram, and a flame."

Felim the Harper stared with intent gaze, but said nothing. Of what avail to say aught against the decrees of the gods?

"This night shall that which I have said be born unto thee, O Felim. The sting will sting to madness him who is king of the Ultonians; the sword will sever from Uladh the chief of her glories, the proud Red Branch for which Concobar and all his chivalry shall perish; the ram shall batter down the proud splendour of Emain Macha; the flame shall pass from dun to dun, from forest to forest, from hill to hill, from the isles of Ara on the west to the shores of the sea-stream of the Moyle on the north, and to those of the sea of Manannan in the east."

Still Felim answered nothing. Then the king spoke:

"Thy words come in dust, like wind-whirled autumn leaves. We have not thy further sigbt, Cathba, and understand thee not."

Then once more Cathba spake out of the dream that was upon him:

"Two stars I see shining in a web of dusk; and, in the shadow of that dusk, a low tower of ivory and white pearls I see, and a strange crimson fruit; and through all and over all I hear the low, sweet vibration of the strings of a harp, a harp such as the Dedannan folk play upon in the moonshine in lonely places, but sweeter still, sweeter and more wonderful."

"Is this thy second vision one and the same with thy first, O Cathba?" asked the king.

"Even so. For the shining stars are her eyes, and the web or dusk is the flower fragrant maze of her hair, that low tower of ivory is her fair, white, wonderful neck, and her white teeth are these pearls, and that strange crimson fruit is no other than her smiling mouth--a little smiling mouth with life and death upon it because of its laughter and grave stillness. As for that harp-playing, it is her voice I hear--a voice more soft and sweet and tender than the love-music of Angus Ogue himself. O shining eyes, O strange crimson fruit that is a little smiling mouth, O sweet voice that is more excellent to bear than the wild music of the Hidden People of the hills--it is of ye, of ye that I speak, and of thee, O tender, delicate fawn, in all thy loveliness."

None spake, but all stared at the Druid. For dream was upon them at these words, and each man imagined his desire, and was wrought by it, and was rapt in strange longing.

It was Concobar who broke the silence.

"Of whomsoever thou speakest, Cathba, she is surely of the divine folk. That exceeding loveliness is for the joy or the sorrow of the world."

Only Felim the Harper was troubled, for now he knew well that the ancient Druid spoke of the unborn child with whom even then his wife was in travail. But no sooner had Concobar ceased than Cathba rose, with his great dark eyes aflame beneath his white eye-brows. His voice was loud and terrible.

"Behold, I see this thing; behold the vision of Cathba the Druid, who is old and nigh unto death. And what is before mine eyes is a sea, a sea of flowing crimson, a sea of blood. Foaming it rises, and wells forth, and overflows, and drowns great straths and valleys, and laves the flanks of high hills, and from the summits of mountains pours down upon the lands of the Gael in a thundering flood, blood-red to the blood-red sea."

But now the spell of silence was broken. All leaped to their feet, and many put their hands upon their swords, There was not one who did not fear the prophesying of Cathba the wise Druid. That deluge of blood, was it not a terror, a great ruin to avert?

"If this child that the wife of Felim the Harper is to bear this night be a blood-bringer so terrible," they cried, "let us slay her at birth. For surely it is better to kill a child than to destroy a nation."

So spake they out of their ignorance that they thought wisdom. For they did not know that there is no thought, no power, no spell, no craft, wherewith to turn aside the feet of Destiny. What has to be, will be, and no man living can say or do aught that is of avail against the inevitable tides of Fate.

For the first time since Cathba had prophesied, Felim uttered word.

"Listen, my kinsmen and fellow-knights of the Red Branch. A sore pity is it for my wife Elva to bear a daughter that shall be a sting to sting the king to madness, and a sword to sever the Red Branch from Uladh, our fair heritage, and a ram to break down the walls of Emania, and a flame to consume the land from shore to shore. And as for that sea of blood, let it not be upon my head. For I, the father of the child of Elva, that--Cathba says is to be a woman-child and of a beauty wonderful to see, say unto ye: That which ye would fain do, do. If it seems good unto ye, O Concobar, and ye of the Red Branch, let this child perish, so that the doom foretold by Cathba may be averted."

At that all were glad save Concobar. Two men was he, this king: a man who reeked little of aught save his desire, and a man who had wisdom. Out of his wisdom he knew that Felim and the Red Branch lords spoke madness, for if it was ordained that the child of Elva should bring doom, that doom would surely come. Out of his longing he loved the beauty of which Cathba had spoken, and desired it against the years to come, and for the solace of his years when he had loved much and at the last was fain only of that which was the crown of life. So he spoke to those before him, and prevailed with them. Not vainly was he called Concobar of the Honeymouth.

"I will speak first to thee, Felim, son of Dall, my bard. It is not good to put death upon the fruit of one's loins. Thine own child should not see death through thee. But even were it so, it is not meet for me or for anyone to bring the shame and pain of death to the house of a friend. Therefore, do not speak of putting silence and darkness upon the child of Elva."

Having spoken thus, the king turned to the lords of the Red Branch. As the wont was, at the royal festivals there were five and three score over three hundred of the Red Branch there and then.¹

¹ Given as in the Gaelic: ciugear agus tri fichead agus tri chead.  Large numbers are in Gaelic invariably built up thus (instead of, for example, as here, four hundred and sixty). In an old Irish-Gaelic version the particular number here is given as "five and three score above six hundred and one thousand. (i.e., 1,760).

"And to ye, Ultonians, I say this thing also. Do not bring blood into the hospitable home of Felim; that would be a stain upon him, upon ye yourselves and upon me the king. But this is my counsel. Let the child live. There is no good in idle blood, and if ye stain yourselves with it, there shall be greater loss and sorrow to follow. Ye are all grown men, and not boys who do not know our laws. Ye know the Law of the Eric. Well, I will free ye of all doom, for upon my head be it. To myself I will take this fair child, and upon me, and not upon the Ultonians, nor upon the Red Branch, nor upon any other whomsoever save Concobar MacNessa, the high king, be the penalty, if penalty there be."

At that a son of a king arose.

"That is well, O Concobar. But what of Cathba's Prophecy? We do not wish to see the sting that shall sting thee to madness, and if the child live shall we not see that sting?"

"Of that I have thought, that I have foreseen, Congal, son of Rossa of the Lakes. For I shall send the child into a lonely place, and there in a solitary rath shall she dwell and grow in years, and no man shall look upon her save I myself, and that only in the fulness of time. She shall be solitary and apart as the Crane of Innisbea, that has dwelt upon its isle since the world was made, and is seen of none."

"Tell us once more, Concobar MacNessa; dost thou take this child, and the doom of this child unto thee, and to thee alone?"

"I have sworn. She shall grow in years, and be wife to me when the time is come. And if sorrow come with her, that sorrow shall be my sorrow. Not upon Uladh be it, but upon me. I have spoken."

"And as for thee, Felim?

"It would be better to slay the child than to drown the land in blood."

"And as for thee, Cathba?

"There is but one law: that which has to come, cometh." But while they were thus debating, the loud chanting voices of women were heard, and soon a messenger came, crying loudly that a child had been born to Elva, wife of Felim, and that it was a woman-child, and exceedingly comely, and strong, and white as milk.

Once more Cathba the Druid spoke.

"She shall be called Darthool,¹ this woman whose beauty shall be a flame, and whose eyes shall be as stars."

¹ In old Irish Gaelic, Derdriu, then Deirdré sometimes Darethra. In Scotland, Dearduil (pronounced Dart'-weel, Darth-uil, or "Darthool," whence Macpherson's "Darthula," who rather loosely says the name is Dart'-huile, a woman of beautiful eyes). The oldest name is said to signify alarm.

And so it was. The child was spared, and that night Elva slept in peace, and for many nights.

When the days of the feasting were over, Concobar left the dun of Felim, and returned with all his company to Emania. With him he took the little child Darthool, and Elva came with him for a month and a day.

The month and the day soon passed, and then Elva went back to her own place. It was the will of the high king and of Felim, her husband; nevertheless, she sorrowed to part with her little child, who, even as a breastbabe, had eyes of so great a beauty that it was a joy to look into them.

Before the year was over--for, according to what Cathba the wise Druid said, the child must either be slain or hidden away before the first year of her life were past--Concobar sent Darthool with the nursing woman to whom he entrusted her, to a small lios, or fort, deep in the heart of the royal forest. A ban was upon that forest that none might hunt or even stray there without the king's will; and now that ban was made absolute, and it was known that death would be the portion of any man who went under these branches. None was to enter that woodland save Concobar, or whosoever might be of his chosen company, or whom the king might thither lead.

Concobar himself saw that food and milk was sent in plenty to the lios, and once in every seven days he went thither himself. As year after year passed the secret of the hiding-place of Darthool went out of men's minds and none knew of the lios save the king, and the sister of the nursing woman, who was his own fosterchild and under geas or bond to him. This woman was named Lavarcam (Leabharcham), and was fair to see, and whom Concobar held to be discreet and trustworthy beyond any other of his own people. She was of the royal household and of the women trained as chroniclers and relaters.¹

¹ The Gaelic original is Beanchaointeach (Banchainte) Conchubhar fein, etc., and means literally Concobar's Conversation-woman, which perhaps might be rendered as "gossip."

The little starry-eyed babe grew to a child, and from a child to a fawn of a girl, fair to see, and from a young girl to a maid, of a beauty so great that Concobar knew when she came to full womanhood she would be indeed as Cathba the Druid had prophesied.

Darthool saw no one but her nurse, and the tutor whom the king had sent to teach her all that could be taught, and not only in learning, but in courtesy and nobility; and Lavarcam, who alone went to and fro. From the time that Darthool passed out of her first girlhood the king saw little of her, but twice in each year-at the Festival of the Sun in the time of the greening, and at the Festival of end Summer at the fall of the leaf; and this because of a warning that had been given him by Cathba the ancient Druid.

How can the beauty of so fair and sweet a woman be revealed? Her loveliness was even as Cathba had foretold. It was a surpassing loveliness, and the three women who saw her often marvelled at it, and wondered no more that Darthool should be kept apart, for of a surety she would be a torch to put flame into the hearts of men, and so set great duns and raths and towered capitals and warring nations ablaze. The poets have sung of her, and no man has sung but out of his deep desire. Her great sad eyes, so full of dream, were blue as are the hill-tarns at noon, and often dusky as they when passing clouds put purple into their depths; and like a golden web her hair was, sprayed out with shining light, wonderful, glorious; and her rowan-red lips were indeed that strange crimson fruit which Cathba had foreseen--rowan-red against the cream-white softness of her skin. Cream-white her body was, and her neck like a tower of ivory; slim and graceful was she as a fawn, and fleet of foot as the wild roes on the hills, and when she moved in the sunlight or the shadow she was so beautiful that tears came at times to the eyes of the women in that lonely place. Yet even more wonderful was her voice-low and sweet and with music in it, like the whisper of the wind among the reeds, or the ripple of green leaves, or the murmuring of a brook.

But now and from this time forth Concobar did not see her. For a year and a day after she attained womanhood, Cathba had warned the king it would mean death to him if he saw her. Nevertheless, he often heard of Darthool from Lavarcam, who in her going to and fro had ever one thing to say that never had there been any woman so beautiful.

The rumour of this great loveliness spread from lip to lip. Yet no man ventured to seek out the hidden place where Darthool dwelled, for to all it was known that Concobar kept her there against the time when he would make her his queen, and all feared the long arm and the heavy hand of Concobar MacNessa. None might even question the king.

It was in this year that the shadows of the feet of Fate came into that place.

NEXT