The Laughter of Peterkin
|The Tale of the Four White Swans, cont'd
There were tears in the eyes of Peterkin when Ian Mor ceased speaking. His heart was sore because of Fionula and Aed and Fiachra and Conn.
Nevertheless, he too would be glad to be a swan for a time, if only so as to be able to soar into the blue spaces of the sky, and to spread white wings over the dancing waters and to move through them swifter than any boat. With what joy he had once climbed on to the fan of an old windmill, and slowly revolved through the hot August air, which winnowed around him a coolness like the flowing of wind over the summit of a hill.
A bright shining came into his eyes, then laughter bubbled to his lips.
Eilidh looked at him, half in mock reproof, half rejoicingly.
"Peterkin, why do you laugh?
"Oh, for sure, dear, it's not laughing I am at the poor swans, but at the face of Old Nanny, my nurse, when she came out of the cottage in the glen and saw me lying flat and holding on to the fan of the windmill, with my hair all blown back, and both my legs hanging in the air."
"Some day you will kill yourself, Peterkin," said Eilidh gravely.
"Then I'll be a swan! and I'll fly round and round Iona, and whenever you or Ian want to go to the mainland, I'll take you on my back."
Suddenly Peterkin sprang to his feet, and jumped to and fro, clapping his hands.
"Ah, how I would love it!" he exclaimed.
"Love what, dearie?
"Love to see Ian fall off my back and go plump in among the herrings in the Sound! What a splash he would make!"
"And poor Ian--- Why, he might be drowned, Peterkin!"
"Oh, no; I would swoop down the way a gannet does when it sees a fish, and would scoop him up with my bill."
The picture was too much for Peterkin. The thought of grabbing the dripping halfdrowned Ian in his bill, and of soaring away with him to the white dry sands, was better than any dream of the fairies he had ever had, even than that when he rode a fairy horse in the guise of a white mouse, with grasshoppers for hounds, and a great bumblebee as a wild boar for the occasion. He threw himself on the floor in front of the hearth, and rolled over and over, contorting his small bodv into alarming convulsions, clapping his hands, and laughing, laughing, laughing.
Eilidh, too, let the laughter take her, and then Ian found it sweet; and soon the little room was full of joyous laughter upon laughter, and of the leaping flame-light from the blazing log on the peats, and of the dancing of the shadow-men in the corners and up and down the walls.
"The swans! The swans! " cried Peterkin suddenly, as he grabbed wildly at some shadowy shapes which slid along the floor. But these swans proved as tantalising as the windshadows on the grass which so often he chased, and suddenly in a flash they disappeared altogether. They seemed to spring right into Ian Mor; at any rate it was in his arms that Peterkin found himself.
"Where are the shadows? Where are the shadows, Ian?" he cried: "I believe you are hiding them inside yourself! Where are they? Where are they?"
"Why, you boykin, where could they be?"
"They are in your heart, Ian! I know they are! I see them! I see them!"
Ian glanced at Eilidh. Then, putting his arm round Peterkin, he laid his lips against the downy cheek and whispered:
"Yes, my little lad, you've guessed right."
"Then why don't you chase them out, Ian?" Again Ian Mor glanced at Eilidh.
"They live there, lennavan-mo. They jumped out because of your laughter, but they are back now."
"Then I'll be laughing often, Ian dear, and some day I'll catch them and drive them out into the sunshine, and then they'll melt--ay, ay, they'll melt for sure, Ian, and what will you be after doing then? "
"Well, like Fionula and the wild swans, Peterkin, I'll rise up and soar away on the great flood of the sun across the sea till I come to Hy Brįsil, the Isle of Youth far away in the West."
"Yes, I know," Peterkin said gravely: "Hy Brįsil: Eilidh told me that is where she and you are going to live. Will you take me there too?"
"Yes, you will come there too, mochree, some day."
But with you--when you and Eilidh go?"
"Perhaps we'll not be going there together, Peterkin. But we won't be forgetting our dear little Peterkin. We'll be on the shore looking out for you when you come."
"Why are your eyes wet, Ian, and Eilidh's too?"
"Why, you unfeeling little wretch, it's because we have left the poor swans, Fionula, and Aed, and Fiachra, and Conn, alone on the rough seas of the Moyle all this while."
"Tell me, tell me now about the children of Lir. Did they see anyone up there? Were they ever happy?"
"Eilidh knows the rest of the story as well as I do, Peterkin, so go and sit in her lap while she tells it to you and to me."
With that, Ian Mor rose and put another log on the red peats. A shower of sparks shot up into the dark hollow of the chimney. Peterkin laughed.
"Hush!" whispered Eilidh, with smiling eyes: and then in her sweet, low voice resumed the tale of the Children of Lir, from where Ian had stopped.
It was at the edge of winter when Fionula and her brothers reached the wild bleak seas of the Moyle.
At first there was no too bitter cold or too fierce tempestuousness to make their evil lot still more hard to bear; but sad indeed were their hearts as day after day they saw nothing but the same grey skies, the same grey wastes and dark sullen waves, the same bleak, rocky coasts inhabited only by the cormorant and the sea-mew. Never to see a familiar face, never to hear a familiar voice: to dwell from morning dusk till evening dark in loneliness and sorrow -that, indeed, was a hard fate upon the four children of Lir. From hunger and cold, too, they suffered much. No longer could they be cheered as they were on Lough Darvra, and often and often they lamented that their doom could not have permitted them to remain as swans indeed, but as swans on that now dear and home-sweet inland sea of Darvra.
Day after day passed, but while their misery and want did not grow less they were not yet tortured by wintry storms and bitter frosts.
But one forlorn afternoon a terrible congregation of clouds, black and heavy and flanked with livid gleams, appeared above the horizon and slowly invaded the whole west, and then all the sky northward and all southward.
Fionula saw that a great tempest was nigh, so she called Aed, and Fiachra, and Conn, to come to her side.
"Dear brothers," she exclaimed, "the storm that will soon be upon us will be worse than any we have yet known. Hardly can we hope not to be driven far apart. Let us agree, therefore, to meet somewhere, if so be that we are not utterly destroyed. For though Aeifa, our cruel stepmother, doomed us to these long ages of suffering, it may well be that even her potent spell is not strong enough against death: and death may come to us through famine, or cold, or in the drowning wave."
At first the brothers could answer nothing. Then Aed spoke. "Thou art wise, dear Fionula. Let us, then, fix upon the rocky isle of Carrick-na-ron, as that place is well known to each of us, and can be descried from a great way off."
Thus it was that Carrick-na-ron was made their place of meeting, if so be that in the blind fury and confusion of the tempest they should be driven the one from the other.
This was well: for that night, with the darkening of the night into a hollow of starless blackness, a terrible tempest swept over the seas, and lashed them into foam and into vast heaving, rolling, swaying billows. Amid the noise of the waves, and behind the screaming of the wind, the four weary rain-drenched bewildered swans could hear the crashing of the thunder and see the wild fitful blue glare of savage lightnings.
Before midnight they were whirled this way and that by the fierce paws of the gale. Soon they were separated, and with despairing cries, each swept solitary through the night. In the heart of each of the children of Lir there was little hope of any morrow. All nearly died of weariness and despair. Nevertheless dawn broke at last, and with the first coming of light the tempest passed away.
When the sun rose the waters were almost smooth again. A sparkling came into the crest of every wave. The sea blued.
Fionula was the first to descry the rocky isle of Carrick-na-ron, and gladly she swam towards it, for she was now too weary to fly. Eagerly she hoped to find her brothers there, safehavened. Alas, there was not a sign of any, not even when she flew to the summit of the highest rock and looked far and wide across the wilderness of waters.
Great sorrow was hers, for sure, when she beheld nothing but wave upon wave, wave upon wave, till on the far horizon the long low line of sea climbed into the sky.
A song of mourning broke from Fionula, so sad and sweet and despairing that the gannets and sea-mews and dark fierce cormorants wheeled around Carrick-na-ron, wondering at the marvel of this wild swan, with the strange remote voice of the human kind. It was a song of farewell.
When Fionula ceased her lament she looked once more across the wastes of the sea. Suddenly she uttered a glad cry, for she descried Conn swimming slowly towards the rocky isle, slowly, and with drooping head, for he was drenched with the salt brine, and so weary that he could scarce move.
Hardly had she welcomed him with joy, and helped him to reach a flat ledge of rock whereon the sunlight poured with healing warmth, than she saw Fiachra desperately striving to make his way towards them, but so far spent that it seemed as though death would overtake him before he reached the foam-edged rocks. Fionula sprang into the running wave, and soon was beside Fiachra, aiding him to her utmost. With difficulty she helped him to the ledge where Conn crouched in the sun, but so weak was he that when he was spoken to he could utter no word in reply. Fionula looked with pity upon her two young brothers. It was hard for her to see their unmothered pain and weariness. So she spread out her broad white-pinions, and gave the warmth of her body to the two drenched and shivering swans.
"Ah!" she exclaimed, as she crouched on the ledge, with Fiacbra nestling by her right side and Conn by her left; "ah! if only Aed were here too, all might yet be well. And even if it be death, sweeter far that we might all perish together." It was as though her loving prayer were answered, for before long she descried Aed swimming swiftly through the sunny foam-splashed seas. He, at least, she saw with joy, had not suffered as his younger brothers had done, for he came on with head erect and his white plumage all unruffled and dazzlingly ashine.
Nevertheless, Aed, too, was glad to rest in the sunshine, so Fionula placed him under her breast.
Noon found them thus: Fionula with sad eyes staring out across the wastes of windy seas; under the warm feathers of her breast, Aed; and close nestled to the warm down of her sides, Fiachra and Conn. She heard their low breathing as they slept, and that they might sleep the deeper and longer she sang her low, sweet, fairy music :
This and other songs Fionula chanted low throughout the day, till at last she too was overcome by her weariness; and she slept.
At the rising of the moon, all awoke. Full glad were Aed and Fiachra and Conn that their tribulation was over; only Fionula knew that the doom which Aeifa had put upon them held worse things, and many, in store for them.
For some days thereafter there was peace. Then a snow-whisper came, and the inland hills and the peaked summits of the isles were white. The cold grew deeper day by day; at each dawn the frost bit with a keener grip. The bitter hardships of the children of Lir were now more almost than they could bear. Nevertheless, they had a yet more dreadful trial to endure: for at mid-winter there came a tempest of whirling snow and icy wind so fierce and terrible, that for a day and a night the waves were strewn with the dead bodies of sea-mews and terns. Nothing the four swans had ever suffered was like unto what they suffered at this time.
But when Fionula had again found and sheltered her dear ones, and mothered them with her great love, she knew that whatever their sufferings they would now surely endure until the end. Had they been subject to the mortal law, they could not have survived that dreadful day, and still more awful night.
And so another year passed. The worst sorrow of the children of Lir was their great loneliness, a thing more bitter than hunger or thirst or any privation. They longed for their kind as the first white flowers of the year long for the sun. When mid-winter came again a terrible frost arose. All the north isles were like black bosses in a gleaming shield, for sheets of ice covered the seas, and each island was gripped as in an iron vice. Day by day the cold grew more terrible. On the morrow of the ninth day the four children of Lir thought that the end of their misery was at hand. The whole sea was one solid floor of ice; the isle of Carrick-na-ron, where they were, was like a black iceberg; into ice lapsed each faint failing breath that they drew with ever greater pain.
Each morning they had waked to find their feet frozen to the rock, and even the edges of their wings; and a bitter thing it was to tear themselves free, and to leave clinging to the rock the soft feathers of their breasts and the outer softer quills of their wings and the skin of their feet.
How fain each was of death! How gladly they would have passed away from the world of the living, though in exile, and longing with aching hearts to see once more their own dear land and the faces of those whom they loved! But their doom was on them, and they could not leave the sea of Moyle, nor could they win death.
The brave heart of Fionula knew this. She knew too what cruel pain it would give her and her brothers to swim through the salt seas with their bleeding wounds, for the brine would enter them and cause agony. Nevertheless, she led them forth towards the coast of the mainland. There they found a fjord and a haven amid the pine-clad shores, and before long their wounds were healed, and the feathers on their wings and breasts grew again.
But of what avail to tell the tale of all their years? Fionula saw that while they must ever return each night to the sea of Moyle till the three hundred years were over and done, they might fly as far and wide as they could between dawn and dusk. Mighty and strong were they now upon the wing, and fit to endure the slashing of rains, the buffetings of wild winds, the whirling briny sleet of the seas, and the cold of the high forlorn spaces of the lonely sky.
Far and wide therefore they roamed, sometimes along the foam-swept headlands of Alba, sometimes by the stormy coasts of Erin, some times for leagues and leagues out into the vast dim wilderness, wherein, so men said, Hy Brįsil lay---- Hy Brįsil, the Isle of Rest, the Isle of joy, the Isle of Youth Eternal.
One day, far in the oblivion of these selfsame years, they chanced to be flying past the mouth of the Bann, on the north coast of Erin : and Aed gave a cry of joy, and bade Fionula and his brothers look inland, for there, coming out of the south-west, was a stately cavalcade, the horsemen mounted on white steeds, beautifully apparelled, and with weapons gleaming in the sun.
How joyous it was to see their own kind again! All gave a cry of rapture, their hearts aching the while that they could not set foot upon the land, as that was forbidden to them, though they might adventure to the shore.
Long and earnestly Fionula looked, but she could not tell who the strangers were.
"Keen are your eyes, Aed," she said; "can you discern who the men of yonder cavalcade are?"
"I know them not as men: but it seems to me that they are a troop of our own Dedannan folk, or perchance they may be of the Milesians."
But while they were still wondering and discussing, the cavalcade drew nearer, and the men of it saw the four swans, and recognising them as the children of Lir, made signs to Fionula and her brothers to alight on the shore.
With joy the Dedannans, for so they were, hailed the poor exiles, for whom indeed they had long been seeking along the north coasts of Erin. As for the children of Lir they could scarce speak, so great was their happiness to hear their dear familiar speech once more and to see the faces of their, own people.
Again and again they were embraced by the two chiefs of the Fairy Host, as the Dedannan warriors were called -- Aed the keen-witted, and Fergus the chess-player, the two sons of Bove Derg, king of the Tuatha-De-Danann.
With joy the children of Lir learned that their father was still alive, and was even then celebrating at his house at Shee Finnaha, along with Bove Derg and the chiefs of the Dedannans, the Feast of Age. As for Aed and Fergus and all their following, they wept when they heard the tale of the misery of these lost years, when Fionula and Aed and Fiachra and Conn were the sport of the winds.
While eagerly and lovingly they were conversing, none noticed that the sun was sinking upon the low wavering line of the ultimate wave. But when at last Fionula saw this, she uttered a sad cry of warning to her brothers, and all four rose on their white wings and made ready to fly back to the bleak and desolate sea of Moyle. And sad, sadder than ever, was the heart of Fionula, for she knew that they could not be there till nightfall, and that the penalty of this would be that they should not again see the face of their kind, either on the shores of Erin or Alba, until the end of the three hundred years on the wastes of the Moyle.
As they circled in the air, she sang this song, the last of the swan songs heard of any of the Dedannans who were in that company:
A great lamentation went up from the cavalcade of the Fairy Host when Fionula ended this song, and she and her brothers flew swiftly northward athwart the waves, red and wild because of the stormy setting of the sun.
Sad was the tale the Dedannans had to relate when they returned to Shee Finnaha.
Nevertheless, Bove Derg, the aged king, and white-haired Lir himself, took comfort in this, that Fionula and her brothers were still alive. Moreover, they knew that in the end the spell of Aeifa would be broken and that the exiles would be freed from their sufferings.
But often, often, they thought with tears, as the slow revolving seasons lapsed one into the other, of the children of Lir upon the desolate far seas of the Moyle.
Here Eilidh's voice lapsed into silence.
Then, looking no longer at Peterkin, but staring into the red heart of the peats, she sang a Gaelic song, called the Sorrow of the Grey Hairs of Lir.
Peterkin never loved Eilidh so well as when she sang; but he was sorrowful to-night when he saw that the song brought tears into her eyes.
"Eilidh," he whispered.
"Yes, Peterkin, dear."
"Wouldn't you be liking to kiss Ian?"
Eilidh laughed low, a faint flush coming and going upon her face.
"For why, boykin?"
"Oh, I know that whenever you have tears in your eyes Ian can chase them away. I have seen him kiss you when you are tired."
At this Ian Mor rose and lifted Peterkin in his arms.
"Eilidh is thinking of something sad, Peterkin; that is all. See, she is smiling now, and laughing too by the same token." The boy tossed his curls, and with a roguish smile added
"Ah, that is just because I said she wanted to kiss you."
"You're much too wise, Peterkin. But there, down with you! Now run to the door, and tell me if it is still raining."
Peterkin never could go straight anywhere, for his progress was ever like that of a kid or lambkin, a series of jumps and little sudden runs. No sooner was he gone, than Ian turned to Eilidh, and took her in his arms.
"Sweetheart," he whispered, "that little, burst o' sunshine is right. A kiss from your lips is the best thing to chase away the tears. But why are you sad, mochree?"
"I was thinking of the sorrow of old Lir; and how little it matters whether one live fifty years or five hundred, as these old Dedannans did. Then suddenly the thought flashed across me that some day soon we should lose Peterkin: he too will become a wild swan, and it will be me who shall hear the far-off singing of his laughing childhood."
"Perhaps he will take his childhood with him into manhood, dear. Let him look often into your beautiful eyes, Eilidh, and the little one will learn much without knowing that he is leaming. And then, too, to be near you why, that is to be a child always deep down, and to have sunshine in the heart and mind for have you forgotten your name, 'Sunshine'"?
As he spoke, Ian Mor leaned and kissed her. Puzzled at the sudden radiant smile on her face, he looked round. There was Peterkin, sitting squatted on the hearth, with an impish smile in his blue eyes. He had crawled behind the hanging curtain at the door, and unseen and unheard gained the fireside.
With a joyous laugh he sprang to his feet.
"Ah, Ian, you and your rain! Is it not hearing you are? It's on the window as if the brownies were throwing little wee stones. It was not the rain you were wanting, but only a kiss from Eilidh! Now, Eilidh, tell me true?"
"Tell you true, Blumpits. Why---"
But here Peterkin, overcome by some sudden memory suggested by the pet name which Eilidh sometimes gave him, went dancing round the room, laughing and chuckling by turns, and once and again clapping his hands in elfin glee.
"Eilidh, Eilidh," he cried, "do tell me again that story of Blumpits and the Bunnywig." Ian looked puzzled.
"What's a bunnywig, Blumpits?""A bunnywig--you're not for knowing what a bunnywig is--and you, Ian Mor, too! A bunnywig is a kunak."¹
"And what did Blumpits do?"
"He got on the bunnywig, in the green fern, and rode on it into fairyland, and no one saw him go but a squirrel. But no, Eilidh, I am not wanting to hear about that now; and don't be looking at my bed there, for I haven't got the sleep upon me yet. Tell me the rest of the tale about Fionula and Aed and Fiachra and Conn."¹ ¹ Coineag, Gaelic for "rabbit." The common English equivalent, Bunny, is a Gaelic derivative, from Bun, a stump or tail.
"I wonder, now, if that's because you really want to hear, or if it's because you don't want to be sent to bed?"
Peterkin had kicked aside his shoes, and taken off his socks, and was warming his feet at the fire. His body was bent nearly double, as he looked round, clutching the while his big toe in the hollow of his tiny fist.
"O Eilidh," he said reproachfully, but with a light of such mischief in his eyes that Eilidh laughed. Then stooping, she took him on her lap, and after a few seconds, when all three looked idly and dreamily into the red fanwave in the heart of the peats, her lips moved again to the sorrowful sweet tale of the Children of Lir.