The Laughter of Peterkin

Darthool and the Sons of Usna, cont'd

One day when Lavarcam told the king that Darthool grew fairer and fairer, so that even the wild creatures of the forest rejoiced in her, he all but yielded to his desire. Nevertheless, fearing the prophetic voice, he refrained, but cried: "When the snow time has passed, and the first greening is over, and the wild rose runs like a flame throughout the land, then will I go to Darthool."

But before the greening was lost in the tides of summer, and before the wild rose had begun to run like a windy flame throughout the land, Concobar had learned that Destiny waits on no man.

One dawn the first snows came over the hills of the north and fell upon the forest. At the rising of the sun they ceased, but every branch was a white plume, and every glade was smooth and white as was the breast of Darthool herself. There was no wind in the deep blue sky, but the air was sharp and sweet because of the frost. For joy Darthool clapped her hands, as she stood upon the wall of the lios.

Then, glancing downward, she beheld the woman who was her attendant standing beside a calf that had been slain for the provisioning of those within the fort. The red blood streamed over the snow, and was as the crimson cloak of an Ultonian chief there, till the red grew mottled as it sank through the frozen whiteness.

Darthool's eyes ever saddened at the sight of blood, but after a brief while she knew that there was no harm in that shedding, and that no omen of further bloodspilling lay therein. While she was still looking thereon, a great raven, glossy black and burnished in the sun rays, came gliding swift across the snow, and alit by the slain calf, and drank of the warm bright blood.

Of a sudden Darthool laughed low. It was a sweet shy laugh, and Lavarcam, who had come to her side, asked her why there was such sweet low laughter upon her. Mayhap she knew; mayhap she guessed that Darthool dreamed dreams of love, because her womanhood was now come, and because of the old heroic tales she took so great a pleasure in, and because of the vision that every woman has in her heart.

"I was thinking, Lavarcam," she said.

"And what was that thought, Darthool?"

"It was this: that if there be anywhere a youth whose skin is white as that whiteness there, and whose locks are as dark and glossy as the plumage of that raven, and in whose cheek is a crimson as red as that blood that is upon the snow, then of a surety him could I love, and that gladly."

For a moment Lavarcam said nought; then the power of Destiny moved her.

"There is one man who is more beautiful than all others I have ever seen. He is young, and his hair is dark and glossy as that raven's wing, and in his cheek the ruddy flame is as that crimson blood, and his skin is as white as any sunlit whiteness, or as thine own breast, Darthool."

"And what will be the name of that man, Lavarcam, and whence is he and where, and what is his degree?"

"He is called Nathos, and is the son of Usna, who is a great lord in Alba. But he is now in Emania, among the company of the king; and with him are his brothers, both fair to see, and princes among men because of their beauty and valour, yet neither so surpassing all men as Nathos. They are called Ailne and Ardan."

I have adopted here, as more euphonious, the name given to the eldest of the sons of Usna (Uisneach) by Macpherson in "Darthula." The old spelling is Naoise.  Ainnle (Ailne, Ailthos) means "beautiful," and Ardan "pride."

That was a fatal saying of Lavarcam, for it sank into the mind of Darthool as moonlight into dark water.

Day by day thereafter she thought of nothing but of meeting this proud son of beauty; night by night she dreamed of Nathos and of his love.

At the last, Lavarcam was filled with fear, for she saw that her words had awakened the flaming lion that lies hid in the heart. And truly it was not long till Darthool spoke to her of her longing and deep desire, and how that without Nathos she did not care to live.

For a time Lavarcam smiled; but when she saw that the king's beautiful ward was ever growing more and more wrought, her heart smote her.

One day, as she was returning from Emain Macha, she met a swineherd, clad roughly in the fell of a deer, and with him were two men, rude, dishevelled hillmen, bondagers to the Ultonians.

These, notwithstanding the law of Concobar, she took with her into the forest, and bade them await at a well that was there, until they heard the cry of a jay and the bark of a hillfox, when they were to move slowly on their way, but to speak to no one whom they might meet, and above all to be silent after they left the shadow of the wood.

Having done this, she entered the lios, and asked Darthool to come forth with her into the woods.

When they drew near to the well, Lavarcam moved aside to look for some rare herb, as she said. Soon the cry of the jay and the bark of the hill-fox were in the air.

"That is a strange thing," Darthool said to her, when she was by her side again; "for that cry of the jay was the cry it gives in April, at the nesting time, and the bark of that hill-fox was the bark it gives in the season of the rut, many months agone."

"Hush," said Lavarcam, "and look."

They stood still, as they saw the swineherd and the two hillmen rise from near the well, and move slowly across the glade.

"Who are these, Lavarcam?" asked Darthool, with wonder in her eyes.

"These are men, daughter of Felim."

"They are younger than those I have seen from the outskirts of the forest, but they are wild in dress and mien, and are not of high degree, and my eyes have no pleasure in looking upon them."

"Nevertheless," answered Lavarcam, "these are the three sons of Usna---Nathos and Ailne and Ardan."

For a brief while Darthool looked upon them. Then she spoke.

"The truth flew past thy lips, Lavarcam. Yonder man whom ye name Nathos has neither raven hair nor white skin, nor the comely red in his face; and the two others are like the slaves I saw that day I beheld the foster-brothers of Concobar driving back from battle, in a chariot dragged by wild rough men in bondage. I remember the day, for it was then that thou badest me know that death was the portion of any man who sought me. That, too, I fear was no true word. Howsoever, as to these men, they may go. And yet---wait."

And with that Darthool moved swiftly forward, and, coming upon the three men by a by-path through the fern, confronted them.

They stood amazed at her exceeding great beauty. Nothing like it was in the whole world; so, little wonder that these boors stood as though the face of death was bare to them; for beauty is strange and terrible to most men, and they are prone to stand in dread of it.

None spake. Darthool looked at each, a slow smile of mocking in her lips, a blue flame of scorn in her eye.

"Are ye the sons of Usna?"

They made no answer, but stared unwaveringly upon her, as do the dull cattle in the fields.

"What brave courtesy!" she cried, mocking with her sweet voice, "how swift in courtesy! Tell me, Nathos, son of Usna, is it the wont of thy people in Alba to stand by agape when a woman speaks? Who is Usna, or what? If he is a king, is he overlord of swineherds? If it is a place, is it the rough bogs of the hills where sword-clad men do not go, but only a poor folk clad rudely in skins?"

Still they answered nothing.

"Were ye whipt into silence when ye were young, ye that stand there wordless as dogs? If indeed ye be the sons of Usna, then truly Concobar MacNessa must be in sore want of men at Emain Macha!"

At that the swineherd could no longer hold to his bond.

"By thy great exceeding beauty I know that thou art no other than Darthool, whom the king hides in this place. But do not mock us, who would rather worship thee. We are no nobles, but a swineherd, and two hillmen who are bondagers to Cairbre of the Three Duns."

At that Darthool laughed gently.

"That I knew full well, swineherd, for all that I dwell here apart and see none of my kind, save Maev my nurse and Aeifa my tutor and Lavarcam the friend of the king. Those I have seen otherwise have been beheld a great way off, from where I lay hid in the woods. But now, wilt thou do one thing for me?"

"I will give thee my life."

Darthool smiled into the man's eyes, and what was only the swineherd died, and a strong heroic soul arose in him.

"I would fain see Nathos, the eldest of the sons of Usna."

"That is against the law of Concobar: and long is the arm and heavy the hand of Concobar MacNessa the high king. But what is death to me, since thou willest me to do this thing for thee, Darthool of the beautiful eyes? Nay, I swear this thing: that rather would I die by torture, and please thee, than live out my life and refuse thee of what thou art fain. For thy beauty is upon me like the light of the moon at the full on the dark moorland. I am thine."

Darthool looked at the man. Suddenly she stooped and kissed him on the wind-furrowed brow. Great fortune was his, and he was well repaid for his death by blunt spear-shafts, when Concobar knew all. For what is death, when a man has reached beyond the limit of his desire?

"Then go this night to Nathos, and tell him that I, Darthool, dream of him by day and by night, and that if he is in any wise fain of me, let him come to me to-morrow, an hour before the setting of the sun, at this well."

With that she turned and walked slowly back to where Lavarcam awaited her. As they moved homeward through the wood, Lavarcam saw that the dream in the eyes of Darthool had deepened. It was in vain then, or later, that she sought to know what the fair, beautiful girl had said to the swineherd. She feared, however, that Darthool no longer trusted her because of the lie that she had told, and that mayhap the girl had plotted somewhat with the swineherd,

All the morrow Lavarcam watched Darthool closely, but she semed rapt in vision, and cared neither to chase the fawns, nor to fish, nor even to wander idly through the woods. No speech would she have with anyone, and said only that she wished to lie under the boughs of the great oak in front of the lios, and sleep.

"How can that be, when there is snow upon the ground?" Lavarcam asked.

"Is there snow upon the ground? " answered Darthool dreamily. "Then I will lie upon my deerskins, and Aeifa can play to me and sing me songs till dusk."

Hearing that, Lavarcam was glad, for now she could leave the lios with a mind at rest. So, in the wane of the day she passed through the forest and came out upon the great plain in front of Emain Macha, and went to seek the king to take counsel with him.

Nevertheless, Lavarcam was sore wrought by Darthool, and would fain have given her her heart's desire. Piteous indeed had her plaints been. With tears and reproaches and sweet beseechings nigh intolerable, Darthool had begged her to bring Nathos to her, if for once only, so that she might at least see him, and know what her heart's desire was like. Moreover, was it not a bitter thing for her to be kept there in that lonely place, and neither to see nor converse with her own kind and to be kept away from all the joys of youth and to pass from spring to summer, and from summer to autumn, and from autumn to winter, year and from year to year, and be exiled there, to hear no young voices, no young laughter? When she pleaded thus, Lavarcam was sorrowful indeed, for she had the heart of a woman, and knew the beauty and the wonder and the mystery of love.

Thinking of these things, her heart smote her as she fared towards Emain Macha, and at the last she decided to say no word to the king as to what she feared Darthool may have. told the swineherd. Furthermore, she muttered, what was death to her who had known all that life had to give her? At the worst, Concobar could put death upon her. Had she not lived and known love, and now was weary?

When she drew nigh to Emain Macha she saw three ravens and three hoodie-crows and three kites arise from some carrion hidden in the long grass that waved there.

When she came upon it, she saw that it was the body of the swineherd, loose with the gaping wounds of blunt spear-shafts. In thuswise she knew that Concobar had in some way heard of what the man had done.

Yet she had no fear from that. The swineherd was still now. Neither king nor raven, neither man nor hoodie-crow, neither spearshaft nor kite could now hurt him. It was better to be alive than to be dead, but it was well to be dead.

So Lavarcam turned, and went over to the camp in Emain Macha where the sons of Usna were. There she saw Nathos, and told him privily that Darthool longed to see him, and that the forest was open to the stealthy flight of the owl as well as to the soaring hawk.

Nathos was indeed fair to see, and looking upon him Lavarcam knew in her heart that Darthool would love him, and he her. He, listened, and she saw his eyes deepen, and a flush come and go upon his face. For sure there was a beating swift of his pulse in that hour.

Nevertheless, he could not come straightway, for Concobar knew that the swineherd had spoken to him of Darthool, and it was for this, and having seen and spoken with the girl, that the king had put the man to death though for that, added Nathos, little did the swineherd care, for he died laughing and mocking, and, when he lay still, there was a smile upon his face.

"And that was because Darthool had looked into his eyes, Nathos, son of Usna."

"Truly, he died well. I know a prince among men who also would die gladly if Darthool would look into his eyes with love."

"Then come soon and hunt the deer in the solitudes to the north of the forest: and there, amid the woods, or in some glen, or on the hill-slopes, surely thou shalt meet with Darthool and yet none know of it."

So Lavarcam and Nathos made a bond between them, and parted.

Thereafter days passed. On the morrow of the seventh day Darthool was wandering among the glades and thickets of the uplands far away from the lios, rejoicing in her new freedom and hoping that one day her eyes might look upon Nathos. She was dreaming her dream, when she started at a strange sound, the like of which she had never heard.

The far-off baying of hounds she knew, for oftentimes of old Concobar had ridden to the forest with his deerhounds: but that strange, wild, blazoning sound---- Was it the voice of the flying creature the hounds pursued?

Then the thought came to her that it was the hunting horn she had often heard of in the songs and war-ballads which Lavarcam and Aeifa were wont to sing to her.

But after that blast the horn no more tore the silence of the deep woods, and the hounds were still: for Nathos had left the chase of the deer and was now moving listless through the green grooms of the forest. Night and day since Lavarcam and the swineherd had told him of Darthool he had dreamed of the beautiful daughter of Felim the Harper. Remembering the last chant of Cathba the Druid, he recalled how Darthool had been named the Beauty of the World, and because he was himself a poet and a dreamer the vision had become part of his life, so that neither by night nor by day was there any hour wherein he did not see in his mind the tall, white-robed figure of Darthool, and the beauty of her eyes, and her face as the sweet wild face of a dream.

And so dreaming he stood at the edge of a glade, his swift eyes watching a fawn dispart a thicket that was close by. Yet it was no fawn as he thought: but rather was it as though a sudden flood of sunshine burst forth in that place. For a woman came from the thicket more beautiful than any dream he had ever dreamed. She was clad in a saffron robe over white that was like the shining of the sun on foam of the sea, and this was claspt with great bands of yellow gold, and over her shoulders was the golden rippling flood of her hair, the sprays of which lightened into delicate fire, and made a mist before him, in the which he could see her eyes like two blue pools wherein purple shadows dreamed.

So exceeding great was her beauty that Nathos did not think of her as Darthool or as any mortal woman, but rather as a daughter of the elder gods, or of that bright divine face of the Tuatha-De-Danann, whose beauty surpassed that of human beings as the beauty of the primrose bank that of the brown sod. He looked upon her amazed, and in a silent worship. If she were indeed of the Dedannan folk, she might disappear at any moment as a shadow goes, that now is here asleep upon the grass and in the twinkling of an eye is among the things of oblivion.

At last speech rose to his lips.

"O fair and wonderful one, who I see well art of the old sacred race of the Tuatha-DeDanann, may I have word with thee? It may well be that thou art no other than the wife of Midir himself, she who lives in a fair shining grianan in the hollow of a hill, and lives upon the beauty and fragrance of flowers." Darthool looked at him, and her heart beat. He was in truth fair to see: fairer even than him whom she had imaged in her dreams, or him of whom Lavarcam had spoken.

"Speak. What wouldst thou?"

"I am faring idly through this lonely land, and I know not where I am. Yonder, in the valley behind the oak-glade, is a high-walled rath. Is it a place of the Shee, and so forbidden? or who dwells there, and shall a spear or welcome greet me if I enter?"

"Indeed, thou mayest enter there, and a welcome awaits thee, O Nathos, son of Usna."

"Thou knowest my name, O fair one; then, indeed, thou art of the old wondrous race, who know swifter than our thought, and whose sight is further and deeper than our sight."

"I am no queen, Nathos, nor am I of the Tuatha-De-Danann, but am a woman as other women are. If I am beautiful in thine eyes, of that I am right glad, for thou art fairer to me than any man I have seen or dreamed of, and my pulse leaps when thine eyes look into mine. I am Darthool, the daughter of Felim the Harper; yet am I no better than a slave, for here am I bound to stay, and see no one save Lavarcam and my two women, and here I shall die for loneliness and longing."

Nathos heard her sweet low voice with delight, and it was with joy at his heart he knew she was no strange Dedannan but a woman of his own race, and that she was Darthool. Love rose suddenly within him like a flame: a red flame was it that was in his heart, and a white flame in his mind, and out of these two flames is wrought the love of love and the passion of passion and the dream of dreams.

"Art thou, indeed, Darthool?" he whispered; art thou that Darthool of whom I have dreamed? Strange is the strangeness of this meeting, O white daughter of Felim. For so great is thy beauty that I was fain to believe I saw before me one of the queens of the Tuatha-De-Danann. But is this thing true, that against thine own will Concobar the high king keeps thee here like a trapped bird among these woods?"

"True it is, and more: for it is not even by Concobar's will that I roam the woodlands. He was fain that I should never leave the rath save with Lavarcam, and that I should spend most of my days within the stone walls of the dreary lios where he has doomed me to dwell."

"Darthool, my heart is filled with a rising tide. That tide is love. Thou hast not seen the sea: but there, when the tide flows, there is nothing, there is no one, in all the world, which can say it nay. So is my love for thee, that now rises; and, once thine, will be thine evermore. Yet I would not put this upon thee; and if thy words and looks come out of thy frank, sweet courtesy and open maidenly heart, and mean no more than that thou carest for me as a brother, it is thy brother I will be, Darthool, to serve thee and succour thee and love thee evermore, and in that way only."

For a brief while she looked at him. Then the noon-blue of her eyes deepened, and a flush drifted through her face and waned into the deeper red of her parted lips.

"Nathos," she said in a low voice, which trembled as a reed in the wind, "I, too, love. It is thee I love. If it be wrong for me, a maiden, to speak thus, forgive me, for I have grown wilding here, and am more akin to the fawns of the forest than to womankind of mine own age or estate. But I love thee, Nathos: as of old, in the far-off Dedannan days, Dectura the queen loved the Green Harper, and went forth with him and was seen no more of her own people."

"If thou indeed wilt have it so, Darthool, be thou my Dectura, and let me be thy Green Harper. For beyond the reach of life or death is the greatness of the love I feel for thee, even now in this first hour of our meeting."

"Thy words are in my heart, Nathos; and because that this is so, I now put geas upon thee. Let thy sword be as my sword, and be thou to me as brother and friend and the holder of my leal love: and to this end, l!o I throw this yellow thistle against thy cheek, to raise a mark of shame there if thou dost not fulfil the bond, and there to be seen of all men as a sign and witness of thy disgrace; yea, even thus I put geas upon thee, to succour me in my ill fate, to take me unto thyself, to give thyself unto me, and to let us go forth together heedless of Fate."

Nathos looked at her with proud eyes.

"Of a surety, Darthool, there is no hero of the Red Branch who hath a courage greater than thine, even though it may be that thou speakest the more freely from knowing little of what may befall."

"What can befall save death, and dost thou fear death, son of Usna?"

Nathos smiled out of grave eyes.

"If I feared death, Darthool, I would not now be speaking with thee here. It is swift silence upon any who in this forbidden land speaks with the daughter of Felim the Harper. Concobar MacNessa has the ears of a hare and the eyes of a hawk and the swoop of an eagle. Dost thou remember the swineherd to whom thou givest word privily? Well, that night he lay in the grass tended only by the raven and the wolf for he was done to death with blunt spear-shafts."

"For that I have deep grief," said Darthool, with tears drifting like a rainy mist athwart the blue of her eyes.

"Nevertheless, he died with a smile, Darthool. Thou hadst looked into his eyes and kissed him. Even so, and for less now, would I too die."

"That thou shalt not do, Nathos"; and even as she spoke Darthool moved forward and put her honeysweet lips against the mouth of Nathos, and made his blood leap, and a flame

NEXT