The Works of "Fiona Macleod", Volume V, The Children of Water


"Men shall die who have an ear for harmonies . . . "--Boinn of the Sidhe (in The Black Linn of Fraech).

"Ah, son of water, daughter of fire, how can ye twain be one?"--The Little Book of the Great Enchantment.

"And lest that evil Destiny which puts dust upon dreams, and silence upon sweet airs, and still songs, and makes the hand idle, and the mind an ebbing leaf, and the spirit as foam upon the sea, should take from this dreamer what he had won, the god of enchantment and illusion gave the man a broken heart, and a mind filled with the sighing of weariness."--The Ancient Beauty.

There was a man--let us call him John o' Dreams--who loved words as the many love the common things of desire, and as the few love the beautiful things of the arts. He was known in that world, at once so narrow and so wide, where the love of perfected utterance in prose or verse is become an ideal. What he wrote was read with eagerness: for those who turned to his books knew they would find there not only his own thought, which was deep, and his own imagination, which had a far-wandering wing, but a verbal music that was his own; a subtle use of the underplay of world-life, the colour, meaning, romance, association, suggestiveness, shadowy hints of worlds; the incommunicable charm.

He loved his art, and he had much to say, and above all longed to capture into rhythm and cadence the floating music that haunted him, and the wonder of life that was his continual dream. But he had a fatal curiosity. Year by year this had grown upon him. He desired to know the well-springs: he desired the well-spring of all literature. At first he sought closely into the art of the rarest masters, now in verse, now in prose: the masters of the dim past, working in the pale gold of antique Greek or the ivory of Catullus, or playing on silver flutes like the obscure singers of the Anthology; or the masters of a later time moulding molten brass like Dante and Milton, or achieving a supreme alchemy like Shakespeare, or shaping agate and porphyry like Leopardi, or white cornelian like Landor, or chrysoprase and green jade like Leconte de Lisle and Walter Pater. But nowhere in these did he find the final secret he sought. No, nor in any other; nor in any language inhabited by beauty-neither in the limpid excellence of French, since Villon quickened it with a mocking sweetness till Verlaine thrilled it with a sound like a lost air in still woods, so subtle, so evanishing, so little of the world about us, so much of the other world on whose leaning brows are mystery and shadow: nor in the sweet and stately passage of the tongue of Florentine and Roman: nor in the deep troubled tongues of the North, from Weimar to Christiania: nor in the speech, accompanied by clarions and cbants, of the spellbound lands of Spain: nor in the great language, like "a mighty army marching with banners," of the English nations.

Then he turned to his own shaped and coloured utterance, and looked into that ; and into his own mind so far as he could see on this side its pinnacles and sudden gulfs; and into his own soul so far as he could sink into these depths. But neither in those still depths, nor in that wide cold region of shade and shine, nor even in that shaped thought and coloured utterance out of which came the beautiful phantoms of his imagination, could he find the silver cord, the thin invisible line that only the soul knows, when it leaves its mortality, as fragrance leaves a rose at dusk.

Then a great sadness fell on him, and he wrote no more.

For long he had been in touch with that otherworld of which he had so often written; and now he dwelled more and more in that company of the imagination and of remembrance.

Dark, pathless glens await the troubled thought of those who cross the dim borderlands. To dwell overlong, there; to listen overlong, there; overlong to speak with those, or to see those whose bright, cold laughter is to us so sad (we know not why), and whose tranquil songs are to us so passing forlorn and wild; overlong to commune with them by the open gate, at the wild wood or near the green mound or by the grey wave; is to sow the moonseed of a fatal melancholy, wherein when it is grown and its poppy-heads stir in a drowsy wind, the mind that wanders there calls upon oblivion as a lost child calling upon God.

But, in that intercourse, that happens sometimes which cannot otherwise happen.

And so it was that one day while he of whom I write lay dreaming by a pool, set by a river that ran through a wood of wind and shadow, a stranger appeared by his side. He knew from whom this woodfarer came, for his eyes were cold and glad and no shadow fell on the bracken. Perhaps he knew--it may well be, he knew--more than this: for the cry of the plover was overheard, and the deceitful drumming of snipe was near, and these are two witnesses of him, Dalua, the Master of Illusions, the Fool of Faery--the dark brother of Angus g and of Airill Ail na'n g, beautiful lords of life and youth.

So when the stranger spoke, and said he would lead to the Lynn of Dreams, and reveal to him there the souls of words in their immortal shape and colour, and how the flow of a secret tide continually moves them into fugitive semblances of mortal colour and mortal shape, the man dreaming by the waterside gladly rose, and the two went together, under the shadow of old trees, to the Lynn of Dream.

When come to that place, where timeless rocks shelved to a deep water, green as a leaf, the mortal and the immortal stooped.

And there the dreamer of whom I write saw his heart's desire bending like a hind of the hill and quenching her thirst. For there he saw the images of beautiful words, as he knew them in their mortal shape and colour, clothe themselves in drifting thought, and often become the thought whose raiment they seemed--or stand, like reeds in shadow, and let the drifting thought take them and wear them as crowns, or diadems, or crested plumes.

And looking deeper he saw the souls of words, in their immortal shape and colour. These would not come from the violet hollows where they moved in their undying dance of joy, nor could the supplication of yearning thoughts reach them.

He saw, too, the flow of the secret tide that continually moved these children of joy into semblance of mortal beauty, images known in happy hours or seen in dreams, but often such as he had never known either in waking dream or in sleeping trance. These he saw ceaselessly woven and unwoven and rewoven. The clusters of many Pleiades made a maze in that living darkness. His soul cried aloud for joy.

When, startled by the wail of a plover at his ear, he looked round, he saw that he was by the riverside again. The stranger stood beside him.

"What have I seen?" he stammered.

"I gave you a cup to drink, and you drank. It is the Cup of which Tristran drank when he loved Yseult beyond the ache of mortal love: the Cup of Wisdom, that gives madness and death before it gives knowledge and life."

The man was alone then, for the Master of Illusions had gone: Herdsman of thoughts and dreams that wander upon the Hills of Time.

But on the morrow, that led many unchanging morrows, the dreamer of whom I have spoken knew that the learning of the secret he had won was in truth the knowledge that is immortal knowledge, and therefore cannot be uttered by mortal tongue or shaped by mortal thought or coloured by mortal art.

He paid the eric for that wisdom. It is the law.

When again he strove to put beauty into the shimmering, elusive veil of words, he knew with bitter pain that he had lost even the artistry that had once been his. After too deep wisdom he stumbled in the shallows of his own poor troubled knowledge.

For a time he struggled, as a swimmer borne from the shore.

It was all gone: the master-touch, the secret art, the craft. He became an obscure stammerer. At the last he was dumb. And then his heart broke, and he died.

But had not the Master of Illusions shown him his heart's desire, and made it his?

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