BECUMA OF THE WHITE SKIN (IRISH FAIRY TALES) by James Stephens
There are more worlds than one, and in many ways they are unlike each other. But joy and sorrow, or, in other words, good and evil, are not absent in their degree from any of the worlds, for wherever there is life there is action, and action is but the expression of one or other of these qualities.
After this Earth there is the world of the Shi’. Beyond it again lies the Many-Coloured Land. Next comes the Land of Wonder, and after that the Land of Promise awaits us. You will cross clay to get into the Shi’; you will cross water to attain the Many-Coloured Land; fire must be passed ere the Land of Wonder is attained, but we do not know what will be crossed for the fourth world.
This adventure of Conn the Hundred Fighter and his son Art was by the way of water, and therefore he was more advanced in magic than Fionn was, all of whose adventures were by the path of clay and into Faery only, but Conn was the High King and so the arch-magician of Ireland.
A council had been called in the Many-Coloured Land to discuss the case of a lady named Becuma Cneisgel, that is, Becuma of the White Skin, the daughter of Eogan Inver. She had run away from her husband Labraid and had taken refuge with Gadiar, one of the sons of Mananna’n mac Lir, the god of the sea, and the ruler, therefore, of that sphere.
It seems, then, that there is marriage in two other spheres. In the Shi’ matrimony is recorded as being parallel in every respect with earth-marriage, and the desire which urges to it seems to be as violent and inconstant as it is with us; but in the Many-Coloured Land marriage is but a contemplation of beauty, a brooding and meditation wherein all grosser desire is unknown and children are born to sinless parents.
In the Shi’ the crime of Becuma would have been lightly considered, and would have received none or but a nominal punishment, but in the second world a horrid gravity attaches to such a lapse, and the retribution meted is implacable and grim. It may be dissolution by fire, and that can note a destruction too final for the mind to contemplate; or it may be banishment from that sphere to a lower and worse one.
This was the fate of Becuma of the White Skin.
One may wonder how, having attained to that sphere, she could have carried with her so strong a memory of the earth. It is certain that she was not a fit person to exist in the Many-Coloured Land, and it is to be feared that she was organised too grossly even for life in the Shi’.
She was an earth-woman, and she was banished to the earth.
Word was sent to the Shi’s of Ireland that this lady should not be permitted to enter any of them; from which it would seem that the ordinances of the Shi come from the higher world, and, it might follow, that the conduct of earth lies in the Shi’.
In that way, the gates of her own world and the innumerable doors of Faery being closed against her, Becuma was forced to appear in the world of men.
It is pleasant, however, notwithstanding her terrible crime and her woeful punishment, to think how courageous she was. When she was told her sentence, nay, her doom, she made no outcry, nor did she waste any time in sorrow. She went home and put on her nicest clothes.
She wore a red satin smock, and, over this, a cloak of green silk out of which long fringes of gold swung and sparkled, and she had light sandals of white bronze on her thin, shapely feet. She had long soft hair that was yellow as gold, and soft as the curling foam of the sea. Her eyes were wide and clear as water and were grey as a dove’s breast. Her teeth were white as snow and of an evenness to marvel at. Her lips were thin and beautifully curved: red lips in truth, red as winter berries and tempting as the fruits of summer. The people who superintended her departure said mournfully that when she was gone there would be no more beauty left in their world.
She stepped into a coracle, it was pushed on the enchanted waters, and it went forward, world within world, until land appeared, and her boat swung in low tide against a rock at the foot of Ben Edair.
So far for her.
Conn the Hundred Fighter, Ard-Ri’ of Ireland, was in the lowest spirits that can be imagined, for his wife was dead. He had been Ard-Ri for nine years, and during his term the corn used to be reaped three times in each year, and there was full and plenty of everything. There are few kings who can boast of more kingly results than he can, but there was sore trouble in store for him.
He had been married to Eithne, the daughter of Brisland Binn, King of Norway, and, next to his subjects, he loved his wife more than all that was lovable in the world. But the term of man and woman, of king or queen, is set in the stars, and there is no escaping Doom for any one; so, when her time came, Eithne died.
Now there were three great burying-places in Ireland—the Brugh of the Boyne in Ulster, over which Angus Og is chief and god; the Shi’ mound of Cruachan Ahi, where Ethal Anbual presides over the underworld of Connacht, and Tailltin, in Royal Meath. It was in this last, the sacred place of his own lordship, that Conn laid his wife to rest.
Her funeral games were played during nine days. Her keen was sung by poets and harpers, and a cairn ten acres wide was heaved over her clay. Then the keening ceased and the games drew to an end; the princes of the Five Prov-inces returned by horse or by chariot to their own places; the concourse of mourners melted away, and there was nothing left by the great cairn but the sun that dozed upon it in the daytime, the heavy clouds that brooded on it in the night, and the desolate, memoried king.
For the dead queen had been so lovely that Conn could not forget her; she had been so kind at every moment that he could not but miss her at every moment; but it was in the Council Chamber and the Judgement Hall that he most pondered her memory. For she had also been wise, and lack-ing her guidance, all grave affairs seemed graver, shadowing each day and going with him to the pillow at night.
The trouble of the king becomes the trouble of the subject, for how shall we live if judgement is withheld, or if faulty decisions are promulgated? Therefore, with the sorrow of the king, all Ireland was in grief, and it was the wish of every person that he should marry again.
Such an idea, however, did not occur to him, for he could not conceive how any woman should fill the place his queen had vacated. He grew more and more despondent, and less and less fitted to cope with affairs of state, and one day he instructed his son Art to take the rule during his absence, and he set out for Ben Edair.
For a great wish had come upon him to walk beside the sea; to listen to the roll and boom of long, grey breakers; to gaze on an unfruitful, desolate wilderness of waters; and to forget in those sights all that he could forget, and if he could not forget then to remember all that he should remember.
He was thus gazing and brooding when one day he observed a coracle drawing to the shore. A young girl stepped from it and walked to him among black boulders and patches of yellow sand.
Being a king he had authority to ask questions. Conn asked her, therefore, all the questions that he could think of, for it is not every day that a lady drives from the sea, and she wearing a golden-fringed cloak of green silk through which a red satin smock peeped at the openings. She replied to his questions, but she did not tell him all the truth; for, indeed, she could not afford to.
She knew who he was, for she retained some of the powers proper to the worlds she had left, and as he looked on her soft yellow hair and on her thin red lips, Conn recognised, as all men do, that one who is lovely must also be good, and so he did not frame any inquiry on that count; for everything is forgotten in the presence of a pretty woman, and a magician can be bewitched also.
She told Conn that the fame of his son Art had reached even the Many-Coloured Land, and that she had fallen in love with the boy. This did not seem unreasonable to one who had himself ventured much in Faery, and who had known so many of the people of that world leave their own land for the love of a mortal.
“What is your name, my sweet lady?” said the king.
“I am called Delvcaem (Fair Shape) and I am the daughter of Morgan,” she replied.
“I have heard much of Morgan,” said the king. “He is a very great magician.”
During this conversation Conn had been regarding her with the minute freedom which is right only in a king. At what precise instant he forgot his dead consort we do not know, but it is certain that at this moment his mind was no longer burdened with that dear and lovely memory. His voice was melancholy when he spoke again.
“You love my son!”
“Who could avoid loving him?” she murmured.
“When a woman speaks to a man about the love she feels for another man she is not liked. And,” he continued, “when she speaks to a man who has no wife of his own about her love for another man then she is disliked.”
“I would not be disliked by you,” Becuma murmured.
“Nevertheless,” said he regally, “I will not come between a woman and her choice.”
“I did not know you lacked a wife,” said Becuma, but indeed she did.
“You know it now,” the king replied sternly.
“What shall I do?” she inquired, “am I to wed you or your son?”
“You must choose,” Conn answered.
“If you allow me to choose it means that you do not want me very badly,” said she with a smile.
“Then I will not allow you to choose,” cried the king, “and it is with myself you shall marry.”
He took her hand in his and kissed it.
“Lovely is this pale thin hand. Lovely is the slender foot that I see in a small bronze shoe,” said the king.
After a suitable time she continued:
“I should not like your son to be at Tara when I am there, or for a year afterwards, for I do not wish to meet him until I have forgotten him and have come to know you well.”
“I do not wish to banish my son,” the king protested.
“It would not really be a banishment,” she said. “A prince’s duty could be set him, and in such an absence he would improve his knowledge both of Ireland and of men. Further,” she continued with downcast eyes, “when you remember the reason that brought me here you will see that his presence would be an embarrassment to us both, and my presence would be unpleasant to him if he remembers his mother.”
“Nevertheless,” said Conn stubbornly, “I do not wish to banish my son; it is awkward and unnecessary.”
“For a year only,” she pleaded.
“It is yet,” he continued thoughtfully, “a reasonable reason that you give and I will do what you ask, but by my hand and word I don’t like doing it.”
They set out then briskly and joyfully on the homeward journey, and in due time they reached Tara of the Kings.
It is part of the education of a prince to be a good chess player, and to continually exercise his mind in view of the judgements that he will be called upon to give and the knotty, tortuous, and perplexing matters which will obscure the issues which he must judge. Art, the son of Conn, was sitting at chess with Cromdes, his father’s magician.
“Be very careful about the move you are going to make,” said Cromdes.
“CAN I be careful?” Art inquired. “Is the move that you are thinking of in my power?”
“It is not,” the other admitted.
“Then I need not be more careful than usual,” Art replied, and he made his move.
“It is a move of banishment,” said Cromdes.
“As I will not banish myself, I suppose my father will do it, but I do not know why he should.”
“Your father will not banish you.”
“Who then?” “Your mother.”
“My mother is dead.”
“You have a new one,” said the magician.
“Here is news,” said Art. “I think I shall not love my new mother.”
“You will yet love her better than she loves you,” said Cromdes, meaning thereby that they would hate each other.
While they spoke the king and Becuma entered the palace.
“I had better go to greet my father,” said the young man.
“You had better wait until he sends for you,” his companion advised, and they returned to their game.
In due time a messenger came from the king directing Art to leave Tara instantly, and to leave Ireland for one full year.
He left Tara that night, and for the space of a year he was not seen again in Ireland. But during that period things did not go well with the king nor with Ireland. Every year before that time three crops of corn used to be lifted off the land, but during Art’s absence there was no corn in Ireland and there was no milk. The whole land went hungry.
Lean people were in every house, lean cattle in every field; the bushes did not swing out their timely berries or seasonable nuts; the bees went abroad as busily as ever, but each night they returned languidly, with empty pouches, and there was no honey in their hives when the honey season came. People began to look at each other questioningly, meaningly, and dark remarks passed between them, for they knew that a bad harvest means, somehow, a bad king, and, although this belief can be combated, it is too firmly rooted in wisdom to be dismissed.
The poets and magicians met to consider why this disaster should have befallen the country and by their arts they discovered the truth about the king’s wife, and that she was Becuma of the White Skin, and they discovered also the cause of her banishment from the Many-Coloured Land that is beyond the sea, which is beyond even the grave.
They told the truth to the king, but he could not bear to be parted from that slender-handed, gold-haired, thin-lipped, blithe enchantress, and he required them to discover some means whereby he might retain his wife and his crown. There was a way and the magicians told him of it.
“If the son of a sinless couple can be found and if his blood be mixed with the soll of Tara the blight and ruin will depart from Ireland,” said the magicians.
“If there is such a boy I will find him,” cried the Hundred Fighter.
At the end of a year Art returned to Tara. His father delivered to him the sceptre of Ireland, and he set out on a journey to find the son of a sinless couple such as he had been told of.
The High King did not know where exactly he should look for such a saviour, but he was well educated and knew how to look for whatever was lacking. This knowledge will be useful to those upon whom a similar duty should ever devolve.
He went to Ben Edair. He stepped into a coracle and pushed out to the deep, and he permitted the coracle to go as the winds and the waves directed it.
In such a way he voyaged among the small islands of the sea until he lost all knowledge of his course and was adrift far out in ocean. He was under the guidance of the stars and the great luminaries.
He saw black seals that stared and barked and dived dancingly, with the round turn of a bow and the forward onset of an arrow. Great whales came heaving from the green-hued void, blowing a wave of the sea high into the air from their noses and smacking their wide flat tails thunder-ously on the water. Porpoises went snorting past in bands and clans. Small fish came sliding and flickering, and all the outlandish creatures of the deep rose by his bobbing craft and swirled and sped away.
Wild storms howled by him so that the boat climbed painfully to the sky on a mile-high wave, balanced for a tense moment on its level top, and sped down the glassy side as a stone goes furiously from a sling.
Or, again, caught in the chop of a broken sea, it stayed shuddering and backing, while above his head there was only a low sad sky, and around him the lap and wash of grey waves that were never the same and were never different.
After long staring on the hungry nothingness of air and water he would stare on the skin-stretched fabric of his boat as on a strangeness, or he would examine his hands and the texture of his skin and the stiff black hairs that grew behind his knuckles and sprouted around his ring, and he found in these things newness and wonder.
Then, when days of storm had passed, the low grey clouds shivered and cracked in a thousand places, each grim islet went scudding to the horizon as though terrified by some great breadth, and when they had passed he stared into vast after vast of blue infinity, in the depths of which his eyes stayed and could not pierce, and wherefrom they could scarcely be withdrawn. A sun beamed thence that filled the air with sparkle and the sea with a thousand lights, and looking on these he was reminded of his home at Tara: of the columns of white and yellow bronze that blazed out sunnily on the sun, and the red and white and yellow painted roofs that beamed at and astonished the eye.
Sailing thus, lost in a succession of days and nights, of winds and calms, he came at last to an island.
His back was turned to it, and long before he saw it he smelled it and wondered; for he had been sitting as in a daze, musing on a change that had seemed to come in his changeless world; and for a long time he could not tell what that was which made a difference on the salt-whipped wind or why he should be excited. For suddenly he had become excited and his heart leaped in violent expectation.
“It is an October smell,” he said.
“It is apples that I smell.”
He turned then and saw the island, fragrant with apple trees, sweet with wells of wine; and, hearkening towards the shore, his ears, dulled yet with the unending rhythms of the sea, distinguished and were filled with song; for the isle was, as it were, a nest of birds, and they sang joyously, sweetly, triumphantly.
He landed on that lovely island, and went forward under the darting birds, under the apple boughs, skirting fragrant lakes about which were woods of the sacred hazel and into which the nuts of knowledge fell and swam; and he blessed the gods of his people because of the ground that did not shiver and because of the deeply rooted trees that could not gad or budge.
Having gone some distance by these pleasant ways he saw a shapely house dozing in the sunlight.
It was thatched with the wings of birds, blue wings and yellow and white wings, and in the centre of the house there was a door of crystal set in posts of bronze.
The queen of this island lived there, Rigru (Large-eyed), the daughter of Lodan, and wife of Daire Degamra. She was seated on a crystal throne with her son Segda by her side, and they welcomed the High King courteously.
There were no servants in this palace; nor was there need for them. The High King found that his hands had washed themselves, and when later on he noticed that food had been placed before him he noticed also that it had come without the assistance of servile hands. A cloak was laid gently about his shoulders, and he was glad of it, for his own was soiled by exposure to sun and wind and water, and was not worthy of a lady’s eye.
Then he was invited to eat.
He noticed, however, that food had been set for no one but himself, and this did not please him, for to eat alone was contrary to the hospitable usage of a king, and was contrary also to his contract with the gods.
“Good, my hosts,” he remonstrated, “it is geasa (taboo) for me to eat alone.”
“But we never eat together,” the queen replied.
“I cannot violate my geasa,” said the High King.
“I will eat with you,” said Segda (Sweet Speech), “and thus, while you are our guest you will not do violence to your vows.”
“Indeed,” said Conn, “that will be a great satisfaction, for I have already all the trouble that I can cope with and have no wish to add to it by offending the gods.”
“What is your trouble?” the gentle queen asked. “During a year,” Conn replied, “there has been neither corn nor milk in Ireland. The land is parched, the trees are withered, the birds do not sing in Ireland, and the bees do not make honey.”
“You are certainly in trouble,” the queen assented.
“But,” she continued, “for what purpose have you come to our island?”
“I have come to ask for the loan of your son.”
“A loan of my son!”
“I have been informed,” Conn explained, “that if the son of a sinless couple is brought to Tara and is bathed in the waters of Ireland the land will be delivered from those ills.”
The king of this island, Daire, had not hitherto spoken, but he now did so with astonishment and emphasis.
“We would not lend our son to any one, not even to gain the kingship of the world,” said he.
But Segda, observing that the guest’s countenance was discomposed, broke in:
“It is not kind to refuse a thing that the Ard-Ri’ of Ireland asks for, and I will go with him.”
“Do not go, my pulse,” his father advised.
“Do not go, my one treasure,” his mother pleaded.
“I must go indeed,” the boy replied, “for it is to do good I am required, and no person may shirk such a requirement.”
“Go then,” said his father, “but I will place you under the protection of the High King and of the Four Provincial Kings of Ireland, and under the protection of Art, the son of Conn, and of Fionn, the son of Uail, and under the protection of the magicians and poets and the men of art in Ireland.” And he thereupon bound these protections and safeguards on the Ard-Ri’ with an oath.
“I will answer for these protections,” said Conn.
He departed then from the island with Segda and in three days they reached Ireland, and in due time they arrived at Tara.
On reaching the palace Conn called his magicians and poets to a council and informed them that he had found the boy they sought—the son of a virgin. These learned people consulted together, and they stated that the young man must be killed, and that his blood should be mixed with the earth of Tara and sprinkled under the withered trees.
When Segda heard this he was astonished and defiant; then, seeing that he was alone and without prospect of succour, he grew downcast and was in great fear for his life. But remembering the safeguards under which he had been placed, he enumerated these to the assembly, and called on the High King to grant him the protections that were his due.
Conn was greatly perturbed, but, as in duty bound, he placed the boy under the various protections that were in his oath, and, with the courage of one who has no more to gain or lose, he placed Segda, furthermore, under the protection of all the men of Ireland.
But the men of Ireland refused to accept that bond, saying that although the Ard-Ri’ was acting justly towards the boy he was not acting justly towards Ireland.
“We do not wish to slay this prince for our pleasure,” they argued, “but for the safety of Ireland he must be killed.”
Angry parties were formed. Art, and Fionn the son of Uail, and the princes of the land were outraged at the idea that one who had been placed under their protection should be hurt by any hand. But the men of Ireland and the magicians stated that the king had gone to Faery for a special purpose, and that his acts outside or contrary to that purpose were illegal, and committed no person to obedience.
There were debates in the Council Hall, in the market-place, in the streets of Tara, some holding that national honour dissolved and absolved all personal honour, and others protesting that no man had aught but his personal honour, and that above it not the gods, not even Ireland, could be placed—for it is to be known that Ireland is a god.
Such a debate was in course, and Segda, to whom both sides addressed gentle and courteous arguments, grew more and more disconsolate.
“You shall die for Ireland, dear heart,” said one of them, and he gave Segda three kisses on each cheek.
“Indeed,” said Segda, returning those kisses, “indeed I had not bargained to die for Ireland, but only to bathe in her waters and to remove her pestilence.”
“But dear child and prince,” said another, kissing him likewise, “if any one of us could save Ireland by dying for her how cheerfully we would die.”
And Segda, returning his three kisses, agreed that the death was noble, but that it was not in his undertaking.
Then, observing the stricken countenances about him, and the faces of men and women hewn thin by hunger, his resolution melted away, and he said:
“I think I must die for you,” and then he said:
“I will die for you.”
And when he had said that, all the people present touched his cheek with their lips, and the love and peace of Ireland entered into his soul, so that he was tranquil and proud and happy.
The executioner drew his wide, thin blade and all those present covered their eyes with their cloaks, when a wailing voice called on the executioner to delay yet a moment. The High King uncovered his eyes and saw that a woman had approached driving a cow before her.
“Why are you killing the boy?” she demanded.
The reason for this slaying was explained to her.
“Are you sure,” she asked, “that the poets and magicians really know everything?”
“Do they not?” the king inquired.
“Do they?” she insisted.
And then turning to the magicians:
“Let one magician of the magicians tell me what is hidden in the bags that are lying across the back of my cow.”
But no magician could tell it, nor did they try to.
“Questions are not answered thus,” they said. “There is formulae, and the calling up of spirits, and lengthy complicated preparations in our art.”
“I am not badly learned in these arts,” said the woman, “and I say that if you slay this cow the effect will be the same as if you had killed the boy.”
“We would prefer to kill a cow or a thousand cows rather than harm this young prince,” said Conn, “but if we spare the boy will these evils return?”
“They will not be banished until you have banished their cause.”
“And what is their cause?”
“Becuma is the cause, and she must be banished.”
“If you must tell me what to do,” said Conn, “tell me at least to do something that I can do.”
“I will tell you certainly. You can keep Becuma and your ills as long as you want to. It does not matter to me. Come, my son,” she said to Segda, for it was Segda’s mother who had come to save him; and then that sinless queen and her son went back to their home of enchantment, leaving the king and Fionn and the magicians and nobles of Ireland astonished and ashamed.
There are good and evil people in this and in every other world, and the person who goes hence will go to the good or the evil that is native to him, while those who return come as surely to their due. The trouble which had fallen on Becuma did not leave her repentant, and the sweet lady began to do wrong as instantly and innocently as a flower begins to grow. It was she who was responsible for the ills which had come on Ireland, and we may wonder why she brought these plagues and droughts to what was now her own country.
Under all wrong-doing lies personal vanity or the feeling that we are endowed and privileged beyond our fellows. It is probable that, however courageously she had accepted fate, Becuma had been sharply stricken in her pride; in the sense of personal strength, aloofness, and identity, in which the mind likens itself to god and will resist every domination but its own. She had been punished, that is, she had submitted to control, and her sense of freedom, of privilege, of very being, was outraged. The mind flinches even from the control of natural law, and how much more from the despotism of its own separated likenesses, for if another can control me that other has usurped me, has become me, and how terribly I seem diminished by the seeming addition!
This sense of separateness is vanity, and is the bed of all wrong-doing. For we are not freedom, we are control, and we must submit to our own function ere we can exercise it. Even unconsciously we accept the rights of others to all that we have, and if we will not share our good with them, it is because we cannot, having none; but we will yet give what we have, although that be evil. To insist on other people sharing in our personal torment is the first step towards insisting that they shall share in our joy, as we shall insist when we get it.
Becuma considered that if she must suffer all else she met should suffer also. She raged, therefore, against Ireland, and in particular she raged against young Art, her husband’s son, and she left undone nothing that could afflict Ireland or the prince. She may have felt that she could not make them suffer, and that is a maddening thought to any woman. Or perhaps she had really desired the son instead of the father, and her thwarted desire had perpetuated itself as hate. But it is true that Art regarded his mother’s successor with intense dislike, and it is true that she actively returned it.
One day Becuma came on the lawn before the palace, and seeing that Art was at chess with Cromdes she walked to the table on which the match was being played and for some time regarded the game. But the young prince did not take any notice of her while she stood by the board, for he knew that this girl was the enemy of Ireland, and he could not bring himself even to look at her.
Becuma, looking down on his beautiful head, smiled as much in rage as in disdain.
“O son of a king,” said she, “I demand a game with you for stakes.”
Art then raised his head and stood up courteously, but he did not look at her.
“Whatever the queen demands I will do,” said he.
“Am I not your mother also?” she replied mockingly, as she took the seat which the chief magician leaped from.
The game was set then, and her play was so skilful that Art was hard put to counter her moves. But at a point of the game Becuma grew thoughtful, and, as by a lapse of memory, she made a move which gave the victory to her opponent. But she had intended that. She sat then, biting on her lip with her white small teeth and staring angrily at Art.
“What do you demand from me?” she asked.
“I bind you to eat no food in Ireland until you find the wand of Curoi, son of Dare’.”
Becuma then put a cloak about her and she went from Tara northward and eastward until she came to the dewy, sparkling Brugh of Angus mac an Og in Ulster, but she was not admitted there. She went thence to the Shi’ ruled over by Eogabal, and although this lord would not admit her, his daughter Aine’, who was her foster-sister, let her into Faery.
She made inquiries and was informed where the dun of Curoi mac Dare’ was, and when she had received this intelligence she set out for Sliev Mis. By what arts she coaxed Curoi to give up his wand it matters not, enough that she was able to return in triumph to Tara. When she handed the wand to Art, she said:
“I claim my game of revenge.”
“It is due to you,” said Art, and they sat on the lawn before the palace and played.
A hard game that was, and at times each of the combatants sat for an hour staring on the board before the next move was made, and at times they looked from the board and for hours stared on the sky seeking as though in heaven for advice. But Becuma’s foster-sister, Aine’, came from the Shi’, and, unseen by any, she interfered with Art’s play, so that, suddenly, when he looked again on the board, his face went pale, for he saw that the game was lost.
“I didn’t move that piece,” said he sternly.
“Nor did I,” Becuma replied, and she called on the onlookers to confirm that statement.
She was smiling to herself secretly, for she had seen what the mortal eyes around could not see.
“I think the game is mine,” she insisted softly.
“I think that your friends in Faery have cheated,” he replied, “but the game is yours if you are content to win it that way.”
“I bind you,” said Becuma, “to eat no food in Ireland until you have found Delvcaem, the daughter of Morgan.”
“Where do I look for her?” said Art in despair.
“She is in one of the islands of the sea,” Becuma replied, “that is all I will tell you,” and she looked at him maliciously, joyously, contentedly, for she thought he would never return from that journey, and that Morgan would see to it.
Art, as his father had done before him, set out for the Many-Coloured Land, but it was from Inver Colpa he embarked and not from Ben Edair.
At a certain time he passed from the rough green ridges of the sea to enchanted waters, and he roamed from island to island asking all people how he might come to Delvcaem, the daughter of Morgan. But he got no news from any one, until he reached an island that was fragrant with wild apples, gay with flowers, and joyous with the song of birds and the deep mellow drumming of the bees. In this island he was met by a lady, Crede’, the Truly Beautiful, and when they had exchanged kisses, he told her who he was and on what errand he was bent.
“We have been expecting you,” said Crede’, “but alas, poor soul, it is a hard, and a long, bad way that you must go; for there is sea and land, danger and difficulty between you and the daughter of Morgan.”
“Yet I must go there,” he answered.
“There is a wild dark ocean to be crossed. There is a dense wood where every thorn on every tree is sharp as a spear-point and is curved and clutching. There is a deep gulf to be gone through,” she said, “a place of silence and terror, full of dumb, venomous monsters. There is an immense oak forest—dark, dense, thorny, a place to be strayed in, a place to be utterly bewildered and lost in. There is a vast dark wilderness, and therein is a dark house, lonely and full of echoes, and in it there are seven gloomy hags, who are warned already of your coming and are waiting to plunge you in a bath of molten lead.”
“It is not a choice journey,” said Art, “but I have no choice and must go.”
“Should you pass those hags,” she continued, “and no one has yet passed them, you must meet Ailill of the Black Teeth, the son of Mongan Tender Blossom, and who could pass that gigantic and terrible fighter?”
“It is not easy to find the daughter of Morgan,” said Art in a melancholy voice.
“It is not easy,” Crede’ replied eagerly, “and if you will take my advice—”
“Advise me,” he broke in, “for in truth there is no man standing in such need of counsel as I do.”
“I would advise you,” said Crede’ in a low voice, “to seek no more for the sweet daughter of Morgan, but to stay in this place where all that is lovely is at your service.”
“But, but—” cried Art in astonishment.
“Am I not as sweet as the daughter of Morgan?” she demanded, and she stood before him queenly and pleadingly, and her eyes took his with imperious tenderness.
“By my hand,” he answered, “you are sweeter and lovelier than any being under the sun, but—”
“And with me,” she said, “you will forget Ireland.”
“I am under bonds,” cried Art, “I have passed my word, and I would not forget Ireland or cut myself from it for all the kingdoms of the Many-Coloured Land.”
Crede’ urged no more at that time, but as they were parting she whispered, “There are two girls, sisters of my own, in Morgan’s palace. They will come to you with a cup in either hand; one cup will be filled with wine and one with poison. Drink from the right-hand cup, O my dear.”
Art stepped into his coracle, and then, wringing her hands, she made yet an attempt to dissuade him from that drear journey.
“Do not leave me,” she urged. “Do not affront these dangers. Around the palace of Morgan there is a palisade of copper spikes, and on the top of each spike the head of a man grins and shrivels. There is one spike only which bears no head, and it is for your head that spike is waiting. Do not go there, my love.”
“I must go indeed,” said. Art earnestly.
“There is yet a danger,” she called. “Beware of Delvcaem’s mother, Dog Head, daughter of the King of the Dog Heads. Beware of her.”
“Indeed,” said Art to himself, “there is so much to beware of that I will beware of nothing. I will go about my business,” he said to the waves, “and I will let those beings and monsters and the people of the Dog Heads go about their business.”
He went forward in his light bark, and at some moment found that he had parted from those seas and was adrift on vaster and more turbulent billows. From those dark-green surges there gaped at him monstrous and cavernous jaws; and round, wicked, red-rimmed, bulging eyes stared fixedly at the boat. A ridge of inky water rushed foaming mountainously on his board, and behind that ridge came a vast warty head that gurgled and groaned. But at these vile creatures he thrust with his lengthy spear or stabbed at closer reach with a dagger.
He was not spared one of the terrors which had been foretold. Thus, in the dark thick oak forest he slew the seven hags and buried them in the molten lead which they had heated for him. He climbed an icy mountain, the cold breath of which seemed to slip into his body and chip off inside of his bones, and there, until he mastered the sort of climbing on ice, for each step that he took upwards he slipped back ten steps. Almost his heart gave way before he learned to climb that venomous hill. In a forked glen into which he slipped at night-fall he was surrounded by giant toads, who spat poison, and were icy as the land they lived in, and were cold and foul and savage. At Sliav Saev he encountered the long-maned lions who lie in wait for the beasts of the world, growling woefully as they squat above their prey and crunch those terrified bones. He came on Ailill of the Black Teeth sitting on the bridge that spanned a torrent, and the grim giant was grinding his teeth on a pillar stone. Art drew nigh unobserved and brought him low.
It was not for nothing that these difficulties and dangers were in his path. These things and creatures were the invention of Dog Head, the wife of Morgan, for it had become known to her that she would die on the day her daughter was wooed. Therefore none of the dangers encountered by Art were real, but were magical chimeras conjured against him by the great witch.
Affronting all, conquering all, he came in time to Morgan’s dun, a place so lovely that after the miseries through which he had struggled he almost wept to see beauty again.
Delvcaem knew that he was coming. She was waiting for him, yearning for him. To her mind Art was not only love, he was freedom, for the poor girl was a captive in her father’s home. A great pillar an hundred feet high had been built on the roof of Morgan’s palace, and on the top of this pillar a tiny room had been constructed, and in this room Delvcaem was a prisoner.
She was lovelier in shape than any other princess of the Many-Coloured Land. She was wiser than all the other women of that land, and she was skilful in music, embroidery, and chastity, and in all else that pertained to the knowledge of a queen.
Although Delvcaem’s mother wished nothing but ill to Art, she yet treated him with the courtesy proper in a queen on the one hand and fitting towards the son of the King of Ireland on the other. Therefore, when Art entered the palace he was met and kissed, and he was bathed and clothed and fed. Two young girls came to him then, having a cup in each of their hands, and presented him with the kingly drink, but, remembering the warning which Credl had given him, he drank only from the right-hand cup and escaped the poison. Next he was visited by Delvcaem’s mother, Dog Head, daughter of the King of the Dog Heads, and Morgan’s queen. She was dressed in full armour, and she challenged Art to fight with her.
It was a woeful combat, for there was no craft or sagacity unknown to her, and Art would infallibly have perished by her hand but that her days were numbered, her star was out, and her time had come. It was her head that rolled on the ground when the combat was over, and it was her head that grinned and shrivelled on the vacant spike which she had reserved for Art’s.
Then Art liberated Delvcaem from her prison at the top of the pillar and they were affianced together. But the ceremony had scarcely been completed when the tread of a single man caused the palace to quake and seemed to jar the world.
It was Morgan returning to the palace.
The gloomy king challenged him to combat also, and in his honour Art put on the battle harness which he had brought from Ireland. He wore a breastplate and helmet of gold, a mantle of blue satin swung from his shoulders, his left hand was thrust into the grips of a purple shield, deeply bossed with silver, and in the other hand he held the wide-grooved, blue hilted sword which had rung so often into fights and combats, and joyous feats and exercises.
Up to this time the trials through which he had passed had seemed so great that they could not easily be added to. But if all those trials had been gathered into one vast calamity they would not equal one half of the rage and catastrophe of his war with Morgan.
For what he could not effect by arms Morgan would endeavour by guile, so that while Art drove at him or parried a crafty blow, the shape of Morgan changed before his eyes, and the monstrous king was having at him in another form, and from a new direction.
It was well for the son of the Ard-Ri’ that he had been beloved by the poets and magicians of his land, and that they had taught him all that was known of shape-changing and words of power.
He had need of all these.
At times, for the weapon must change with the enemy, they fought with their foreheads as two giant stags, and the crash of their monstrous onslaught rolled and lingered on the air long after their skulls had parted. Then as two lions, long-clawed, deep-mouthed, snarling, with rigid mane, with red-eyed glare, with flashing, sharp-white fangs, they prowled lithely about each other seeking for an opening. And then as two green-ridged, white-topped, broad-swung, overwhelming, vehement billows of the deep, they met and crashed and sunk into and rolled away from each other; and the noise of these two waves was as the roar of all ocean when the howl of the tempest is drowned in the league-long fury of the surge.
But when the wife’s time has come the husband is doomed. He is required elsewhere by his beloved, and Morgan went to rejoin his queen in the world that comes after the Many-Coloured Land, and his victor shore that knowledgeable head away from its giant shoulders.
He did not tarry in the Many-Coloured Land, for he had nothing further to seek there. He gathered the things which pleased him best from among the treasures of its grisly king, and with Delvcaem by his side they stepped into the coracle.
Then, setting their minds on Ireland, they went there as it were in a flash.
The waves of all the world seemed to whirl past them in one huge, green cataract. The sound of all these oceans boomed in their ears for one eternal instant. Nothing was for that moment but a vast roar and pour of waters. Thence they swung into a silence equally vast, and so sudden that it was as thunderous in the comparison as was the elemental rage they quitted. For a time they sat panting, staring at each other, holding each other, lest not only their lives but their very souls should be swirled away in the gusty passage of world within world; and then, looking abroad, they saw the small bright waves creaming by the rocks of Ben Edair, and they blessed the power that had guided and protected them, and they blessed the comely land of Ir.
On reaching Tara, Delvcaem, who was more powerful in art and magic than Becuma, ordered the latter to go away, and she did so.
She left the king’s side. She came from the midst of the counsellors and magicians. She did not bid farewell to any one. She did not say good-bye to the king as she set out for Ben Edair.
Where she could go to no man knew, for she had been banished from the Many-Coloured Land and could not return there. She was forbidden entry to the Shi’ by Angus Og, and she could not remain in Ireland. She went to Sasana and she became a queen in that country, and it was she who fostered the rage against the Holy Land which has not ceased to this day.
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