"The Three Sorrows of Storytelling"

 

 

 

The Laughter of Peterkin

I

At the rising of the moon, Peterkin awoke, and laughed. He was in his little white bed near the open window, so that when a moonbeam wavered from amid the branches of the great poplar, falling suddenly upon his tangled curls and yellowing them with a ripple of pale gold, it was as though a living thing stole in out of the June night.

He had not awaked at first. The moonbeam seemed caught in a tangle: then it glanced along a crescent tress on the pillow: sprang back like a startled bird: flickered hither and thither above the little sleeping face: and at last played idly on the closed eyelids with their long dark eyelashes. It was then that Peterkin awoke.

When he opened his eyes he sat up, and so the moonbeam fell into the two white cups of his tiny hands. He held it, but like a yellow eel it wriggled away, and danced mockingly upon the counterpane.

With a sleepy smile he turned and looked out of the window. How dark it was out there! That white moth which wavered to and fro made the twilight like a shadowy wall. Then upon this wall Peterkin saw a great fantastic shape. It grew and grew and spread out huge arms and innumerable little hands: and in its shadow-face it had seven shining eyes. Peterkin stared, awe-struck. Then there was a dance of moonshine, a cascade of trickling, rippling yellow, and he saw that the shape in the night was the familiar poplar and that its arms were the big boughs and branches where the spotted mavis and the black merle sang each morning, and that the innumerable little hands were the ever-tremulous, everdancing, round little leaves, and that the seven glittering eyes were only seven stars that had caught among the topmost twigs.

II

Peterkin was very sleepy, but before his head sank back to the pillow he saw something which caused him to hold his breath, and made his eyes grow so round and large that they were like the little pools one sees on the hillside.

Every here and there he saw tiny yellow and green lives slipping and sliding along and in and out of the branches of the poplar. Sometimes they were all pale yellow, like gold; sometimes of a shimmering green; sometimes so dusky that only by their shining eyes were they visible. At first he could not clearly distinguish those unfamiliar denizens of the great poplar. The vast green pyramid seemed innumerously alive. Then gradually he saw that each delicate shape was like a human being: little men and women, but smaller than the smallest children, smaller even than dolls. They were all laughing and chasing each other to and fro. Some slid swiftly down an outspread branch, and then dropped on to a green leafy billow or plunged into an inscrutable maze: others swung by the little crook at the end of each leaf, and laughed as they were blown this way and that by puffs of air: and a few daring ones climbed to the topmost sprays of the topmost boughs and held up tiny white hands like daisies. These wished to clasp the moonshine. As well might a fish try to catch the moon-dazzle on the water! No wonder Peterkin laughed.

Ever and again a delicate sweet singing came from the moonshine-folk. Peterkin listened, but could hear no words he knew. Perhaps there were no words at all, or mayhap he himself knew too few. But the singing was strangely familiar. Sometimes when mother sang, surely he had heard it: as far back, farther back, than memory could take him, he had heard some echo of it. Cradle-sweet it was, that dim snatch of a fugitive strain. And, too, had he not heard something of it in the wind, when that went whispering through the grass and in and out of the wild-rose thicket, or when it lifted and waved a great wing and fanned the trees into vast swaying flames of green? Yes, even in the fire he had heard it. When the orange and red flames flickered among the coals, or caught the sap in the pine-logs and grew into yellow and blue with hearts of purple, he had heard a faint far-off music.

Peterkin gave a little gasp when a sudden wave of shadow, trailed across the poplar by a long slow-travelling cloud, swept from bough to bough. It was as though all the singing, laughing, dancing folk had been drowned.

He stared through the darkness but there was nothing to be seen. He shivered. It was lonely out there. Again he heard a sound as of a remote singing. As before, he could not hear what the words were. But, once more, it was not all unfamiliar. It was sadder than anything that dimly he remembered save the long mournful crooning of a Gaelic cradle-song, sadder than any flamewhisper in a waning fire, or than any cadence of the wind in the grass, or among the thickets of wild rose.

III

Next night Peterkin lay awake a long time, hoping to see the moonshine-folk again. He had spoken of them, but was told that there were no little people in the poplar. At first this was the more strange to him, for had he not seen them? Then, after he had scrupulously examined the branches from beneath as well as at a distance, he comforted himself with the thought that, while there might be no little people actually living in the poplar, they came into the tree on the flood of the moonshine.

But that night there was no moon-flood. A south wind had arisen at sundown, and had shepherded from beyond the hills a medley of strayed clouds; these, intricately interwoven, now spread from horizon to horizon, obliterating the stars and obscuring even the radiance of the new-risen moon.

If there were no moonlight, and therefore no little yellow and green lives with bright shining eyes, there was a strange exquisite whispering that grew into music sweeter than any which Peterkin had ever heard.

He rose and crept stealthily from his bed to the door. It was ajar, and he looked, half-fearfully, half-wonderingly, into the open passage. How long and dark it was, and haunted by unfamiliar shadows: but, clasping. the skirts of his nightgown close to him, he ran swiftly to the balustrade at the far end.

There the stair lamp shed a comfortable glow. Peterkin looked warily down the stairs, into the hall, along the closed or opened rooms. There was no one stirring. The front door too was open, for the night was warm, or perhaps someone had strayed without.

The child stood awhile, hesitating. Then he slipped down the stairway like a swift moonbeam. For the first time he realized he was only a little child, when he passed the great antlered stag's-head in the hall, and the high stand hung with coats and hats, the raiment of giants as they seemed, and mysteriously life-like.

But once in the open air he lost all fear. True, a great mass of rhododendrons ran close to the avenue to the right, and through this the path meandered to the gardens behind the house: but there was nothing unfamiliar about their gloom,-- for Peterkin loved their green shadowy depths at noon, and their fragrant dusk when the long shadows on the lawn slept longer and bluer, till they sank invisibly into the grass.

Old Donal McDonal the gardener, on his way through the shrubberies, rubbed his eyes: for he thought he saw a sprite. He could have sworn, he said to Mairgred Cameron the cook, after he entered the house, that he had seen a small white ghost flitting from bush to bush. Both shook their heads, and wondered if the White Lady were come again, that apparition which legend averred was to be seen by mortal eyes once in every generation, and always before some tragic event or death itself.

But as for Peterkin he had no thought of such things. He was now in the garden, eager in his quest of the little people who hide among leaves and grass, and love the dusk and the moonlit dark.

He had no fear as he ran to and fro along the grassy ways. Why should he be afraid of the dark? There was nothing there to frighten him, or any, child.

For a time he ran to and fro, or crept warily among the lilac bushes. His little white figure drifted hither and thither like a moth. Once he was still, when he stood, shimmering white, among the lilies of the valley, which clustered among their green sheaths at the far end of the garden. Here, a few days ago, he had buried a dead bird he had found under a nest. It was a thrush, the gardener had told him, puzzled at the slow tears which welled from the eyes of the little lad. And now Peterkin wondered if the bird were awake.

He had gone to Ian Mor, who was staying with his father and mother, and told him about the buried bird: and Ian had comforted him with this tale:---

"Long ago there was a great king. He had the wisdom of wisdom, as the saying is. One day the plague came to his kingdom, and he lost the three lives which were dearest to him in all the world. These were his mother, his wife, and his little son.
"This king was a poet and dreamer, as well as a great warrior and prince, and he had ever been wont to have communion with the powers and sweet influences which are behind the innumerable veils of the world. Through these he had come to know the mystery of the Spirit of Life.
"With this Eternal Spirit he held communion in his deep sorrow. It was then that he learned how what is beautiful cannot pass, for beauty is like life that is mortal, but whose essence does not perish. In fragrance, in colour, in sweet sound, somehow and somewhere, that which is beautiful is transmuted when suddenly changed or slain.
"So he prayed to the Spirit of Life that his dear ones might not pass from him utterly.
"On the morrow, when he rose and went into his favourite place in the royal gardens, a secret hollow in a glade of ilex and pine, he saw a fountain of exceeding beauty. The spray rose dazzling white against the sombre green of the old trees, and seemed to be alive with a myriad rainbow-spirits, who ceaselessly flashed their wings as they darted hither and thither. The king was looking upon this, entranced by its sunny loveliness, when he noticed a white dove flying round the high sunlit fount, and at the hither margin of the water a cream-white dappled fawn, which stooped its graceful neck and drank.
"The king marvelled; for not only had there never been any fountain in that place, but he knew that no wild fawn could wander there from the distant forests, and no dove had he ever seen so snowy white and with wings radiant as though stained by the rainbow-hues of the flying spray.
"Suddenly it was as though a mist fell from his eyes. He saw and understood. His old mother, his wife, his little son, had not passed away, although they were dead. His mother had been fair and beautiful even in her white-hair years; and of the beauty of his wife, whom he loved so passing well, the poets had sung from one end of the land to another; while his little son had been held to be so perfect that there was none like him.
"And now the king saw that the beauty of his mother had passed into a living fount of waters, whose spray cooled the air and made a sound of aerial music and a laughing radiance everywhere; and that the beauty of the woman whom he had loved so passing well was transmuted into the wild fawn which drank at the water's edge; and that the beauty of his little son was now the white dove which beat its wings in the rainbow spray.
"The king rejoiced therein with a great joy. Many of his people thought him mad, but he smiled at that saying, and with grave eyes prayed that that madness would come to all true and noble souls in his kingdom.
"For a year and a day this joy was his. Then the fountain ceased to rise, and the dove to beat its pinions in the spray, and the Wild fawn to drink at the water's edge. The rumour went from mouth to mouth that this was because the plague had come again. The king was heavy with sorrow, for he had taken his deepest happiness in the beauty of these three lovely things, as, of yore, in the beauty of his aged mother, and in the beauty of the women whom he loved, and in the beauty of his little son. So once again he remembered how he had been helped. With shame at his heart he upbraided himself because he had lived too much to the things of the moment and so had lost touch with those which were of the enduring life. That night he spent in unspoken prayer and prolonged meditation; and at dawn on the morrow he went slowly and sadly forth, hoping against hope that his life might be gladdened again.
"The sun rose as he crossed the glade of ilex and pine. There was no fountain, as he well knew; but where the fountain had been he saw a garth of wild hyacinths, of a blue so wonderful that no Maytide sky was ever more delicately wrought of azure and purple. And above this were two little brown birds, which sang with so sweet voice and bewildered rapture that his heart melted within him.
"Then he knew that in these new joys he had found again the beauty he had lost.
"When, in the change of the days, the hyacinths spilt their blue wave into the riding green of the fern, and the birds ceased singing their lovely aerial songs, the king no longer grieved, for now he knew that what was beautiful would not perish but drift from change to change.
"And so it was. For when, weary of his pain, he went forth one night to the lovely glade of ilex and pine, he saw the ground white with the little blooms we call Stars of Bethlehem and among these a glow-worm lay and glowed like a lamp in a white wilderness and from an ancient ilex came the voice of a nightingale.
"Thus the king was comforted.

"And so you too, Peterkin," added Ian Mor, "need not sorrow too much for your little dead bird. It will live again mayhap in the fragrance of a lily or in the beauty of a rose. It will rise again, Peterkin."

This tale had sunk deeply into the child's mind, and perhaps all the more so because the words, and the meaning behind the words, were sometimes beyond him. But he understood well the drift of what Ian Mor had told him.

He was prepared for any miracle. If his little bird should rise through the brown earth and ascend singing towards the stars; or if he should hear a song, and see no bird; or if a fount should well from where its body lay; or if a rare bloom should spring from the earth; or if a fragrance, new and sweet, should reach him-if one of these things should happen, or anything akin, it would be no surprise to him.

But while he was still wondering, he heard voices.

"Peterkin! Peterkin!"

He did not answer, but laughing low to himself, crept in among the lilies-of-the-valley, and lay there, himself like a white bloom. The voices came near, nearer, and passed by. Peterkin's heart smote him, for he heard the pain in the calling voices; but it was so cool and quiet there among the lilies, and it was so sweet to be out of sight of everyone and lost, that he could not break the spell.

What if he were to be found by the elfin-folk and led into fairyland? He thrilled both with fear and eager delight at the thought. Surely even now he heard the delicate music of the lily-bells ?

Peterkin did not know that he had a neighhour. Suddenly, he heard a faint rustle. Ah, it was one of the Shee---one of the little people! Mayhap it was the green Harper, of whom Ian Mor had told him, or one of the seven star-crowned queens, or the haughty Midir, with a peacock's feather in his moongold hair, or Fand, who walked in fairy dew, or--  or---

And then Peterkin saw who his neighbour was. From under a stone, beset by lilysheaths, a small toad crawled. Its strange bright eyes were fixed upon the staring child who, however, it did not seem to heed after it had once examined this strange white creature who lay among the lilies.

Suddenly Peterkin began to laugh. The toad sat still, solemnly regarding him. Peterkin laughed the more. Once the toad gave a short jump, though this was not from fear, or even from lack of interest in his unfamiliar neighbour, but because a gnat had come temptingly almost within reach of his long, thin, serpentine tongue.

"Tell me, toad," Peterkin said at last, "why are you so funny?"

Whether it was because the toad was not given to gaiety, or whether his disappointment about the gnat had soured him, he did not respond save by an unwinking stare. After a while it shot out its tongue, as though it were speculating as to Peterkin's flavour as a pleasant morsel, or perhaps only to find if he were within reach.

This was too much for Peterkin, who rolled back among the lilies, crushing the little white bells into a floating fragrance. But, alas, that betraying laughter!

Peterkin was still in its throes when he heard a voice falling upon him as though out of the skies.

"Ah, there you are, you little rascal! How you frightened us all, and what a hunt we have had!"

Almost before he recognised the voice of Ian Mor, Peterkin was seized and lifted high into the air.

"Don't be angry, Ian," the child whispered. "I came out to see the fairies. And then I ran on here to see if the little dead bird had come out of the earth again."

"And have you seen a fairy, Peterkin?

"I don't know. I saw a toad."

"What did the toad do?"

"It looked at me till I laughed. Then it put out its tongue, and I laughed and laughed and laughed."

"I'm thinking that toad must have been a fairy in disguise, Peterkin. But now come: I am going to carry you back to your bed."

And whether it was because of Peterkin's escape into the garden, or what vaguely came to him there, or what Ian Mor told him as he carried him homeward in his arms he did hear the horns of elf-land that night, and did see the gathering of the Shee in the moonshine. But it was in a drowsy hollow in the dim wood of sleep, wherein the birds were white softpinioned dreams, and the moon waxed and waned like the lily that sinks and rises in dark pools.

IV

In those first fragments of Peterkin's experiences, all his life was foreshadowed. Wonder, delight, longing, laughter--the four winds of childhood--these blew for him through his first few years, through childhood and boyhood and youth. He is a man now; but though the laughter is rarer and the longing deeper and more constant, there still blow through the dark glens and wide sunlit moors of his mind the four winds of Laughter, Longing, Wonder, and Delight.

As year after year went by, his mind became a storehouse of all that was most beautiful and marvellous in the Celtic wonder-world. It is no wonder this, since he had for story-teller Ian Mor, and Eilidh whom Ian loved; and knew every shepherd on the hillsides of Strachurmore, and every fisherman on the shores of Loch Fyne. The old ballads, the old romances, the strange fragments of the Ossianic tales, the lore of fairydom, fantastic folk-lore, craft of the woodlands, all of the outer and inner life grew into and became interwrought with the fibre of his most intimate being.

I am not here telling the story of Peterkin himself. He stands, indeed, for many children rather than for one, for many lives and not an individual merely.

In a sense therefore, Peterkin is not merely a little child, a boy, a youth, who went through his years gladly laughing, mysteriously wondering, wrought to pain and joy, to suffering and delight, by all he saw and heard and inwardly learned; but a type of the Wonder-Child, and so a brother to all children, to poets, and dreamers.

Of the many tales of old times which Peterkin loved none did he dwell upon with so much delight as those three which are familiar throughout Ireland and Gaelic Scotland as "The Three Sorrows of Story-Telling." In "The Children of Lir," in "Deirdre and the Sons of Usna," in "The Children of Turenn," he found pre-eminently the haunting charm and sad exquisite beauty which are the colour and fragrance of the Celtic genius.

And though in his manhood he turned with deeper emotion to tales such as "Dermid and Grainne," or "The Amadan Mor," it was of these early favourites that he loved to think, that he loved to re-read, to hear again, to re-tell.

That is why, therefore, I have chosen to make this book essentially a re-telling of the beautiful old tales of "The Three Sorrows," so familiar once to our Gaelic ancestors, and still, in however crude a form, the most popular of all the tales of the Gael. They are sad, it is true, because all the old beautiful tales are sad; but it is a sadness which is a fragrance about an exquisite bloom, and that bloom wrought of joy and keen delight. They were not sad, they who lived the old, joyous, heroic life; in some poignant vicissitude, some sudden slaying, some passing of a bright flame into a melancholy wane, we see a sad gleam about the end of their days, and, seeing thus the fortuitous coming and going of life and death, read into the old chronicles a melancholy which often is not there.

Of course, a tale such as "The Fate of the Children of Lir"--- probably the story known above all others among the children of Westem Scotland and Ireland--is sad with another sadness, that of prolonged and unmerited suffering. But to the Gaelic mind, at least, this is redeemed by the sense of heroic endurance, of the deep unselfish devotion of a lovely womanly type such as is represented by Fionula, and perhaps, above all, by the music and beauty which were the sweet doom of Fionula and her brothers.

But to me not one of them is sad, save with beauty. For through all I hear the sound of Peterkin's laughter. Sometimes it was aroused by an episode; sometimes it leapt like a hound along the trail of vagrant thoughts; sometimes it came and went as an eddying wind, none knowing whence or whither.

This laughter of Peterkin has become for me one of the sweet wonderful voices of nature --- the four winds of Childhood: Wonder, Delight, Longing, and Laughter. Ah, children, children, to one and all I wish the golden fortune of Peterkin.

V

When Peterkin was still a child he was familiar with tales of the old world which now-a-days we keep from children, because they are not old enough to understand. That, I fear, is more because we ourselves do not understand, or are out of sympathy. Is a child more likely to be hurt, or to be nobly attuned to the chant-royal of life, by acquaintance with stories of vivid and beautiful human love such as that of Nathos and Darthool, or Dermid and Grainne? Surely, what is beautiful is not a thing to be feared; and though, alas! so many of us do now indeed dread beauty and feel toward it a strange baffled aversion, there are others who know it to be the profoundest and most exquisite mystery in life.

To Peterkin at any rate there was never anything but what was stirring and heroic and full of charm and beauty in these old tales: and through all his days their atmosphere was in his mind, so that he made life fairer for himself and others.

Few stories delighted him more than the wild folk-lore tales which he heard from the shepherds and fishermen, or than those which he was told on Iona. It was to that island he was taken when he was still a child, at a time when the shadow of death darkened his young life. But there, staying with Ian Mor and with Eilidh, his wife, he lived the happiest months of his early years, and came closer to the beauty of the past and to the beauty of the present than ever before or after.

It was on Iona that he first heard the "Three Sorrows of Story-Telling," though that of Nathos and Darthool--or of " The Sons of Usna," as it is generally called--was rather overheard by him as Ian related it to Eilidh, than told to him direct.

Throughout the first months of his stay in Iona, Peterkin was told something daily by Ian Mor, so that, child as he was, he became familiar with strange names and peoples of the past, as well as with all the wonders of the living world. True, there was thus in his mind a jumble of the past and the present, and Columba was more real to him than McCailin Mor himself, and Finn and Cuchulain, Ossian and Oscar and Dermid, as vivid and actual as any fisherman of Iona.

When he was old enough to follow aright, Ian Mor told him, anew and in his own way, the three famous tales which follow.

CONTENTS