Penelope's Irish Experiences by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part Fifth--Royal Meath.
Chapter XXX. The Quest of the Fair Strangers, or The Fairy Quicken-Tree of Devorgilla.
'Before the King The bards will sing. And there recall the stories all That give renown to Ireland.' Eighteenth Century Song. Englished by George Sigerson.
*It seems probable that this tale records a real incident which took place in Aunt David's garden. Penelope has apparently listened with such attention to the old Celtic romances as told by the Ard-ri and Dermot O'Dyna that she has, consciously or unconsciously, reproduced something of their atmosphere and phraseology. The delightful surprise at the end must have been contrived by Salemina, when she, in her character of Sheela the Scribe, gazed into the Horn of Foreknowledge and learned the events that were to happen that day.-- K.D.W.
Three maidens once dwelt in a castle in that part of the Isle of Weeping known as the cantred of Devorgilla, Devorgilla of the Green Hill Slopes; and they were baptized according to druidical rites as Sheela the Scribe, Finola the Festive, and Pearla the Melodious, though by the dwellers in that land they were called the Fair Strangers, or the Children of Corr the Swift-Footed.
This cantred of Devorgilla they acquired by paying rent and tribute to the Wise Woman of Wales, who granted them to fish in its crystal streams and to hunt over the green-sided hills, to roam through the woods of yew-trees and to pluck the flowers of every hue that were laughing all over the plains.
Thus were they circumstanced: Their palace of abode was never without three shouts in it,--the shout of the maidens brewing tea, the shout of the guests drinking it, and the shout of the assembled multitude playing at their games. The same house was never without three measures,--a measure of magic malt for raising the spirits, a measure of Attic salt for the seasoning of tales, and a measure of poppy leaves to induce sleep when the tales were dull.
And the manner of their lives was this: In the cool of the morning they gathered nuts and arbutus apples and scarlet quicken berries to take back with them to Tir-thar-toinn, the Country beyond the Wave; for this was the land of their birth. When the sun was high in the east they went forth to the chase; sometimes it was to hunt the Ard- ri, and at others it was in pursuit of Dermot of the Bright Face. Then, after resting awhile on their couches of soft rushes, they would perform champion feats, or play on their harps, or fish in their clear-flowing streams that were swimming with salmon.
The manner of their fishing was this: to cut a long, straight sallow-tree rod, and having fastened a hook and one of Finola's hairs upon it, to put a quicken-tree berry upon the hook, and stand on the brink of the swift-flowing river, whence they drew out the shining-skinned, silver-sided salmon. These they would straightway broil over a little fire of birch boughs; and they needed with them no other food but the magical loaf made by Toma, one of their house- servants. The witch hag that dwelt on that hillside of Rosnaree called Fan-na-carpat, or the Slope of the Chariots, had cast a druidical spell over Toma, by which she was able to knead a loaf that would last twenty days and twenty nights, and one mouthful of which would satisfy hunger for that length of time.**
Not far from the mayden castle was a certain royal palace, with a glittering roof, and the name of the palace was Rosnaree. And upon the level green in front of the regal abode, or in the banqueting- halls, might always be seen noble companies of knights and ladies bright,--some feasting, some playing at the chess, some giving ear to the music of their own harps, some continually shaking the Chain of Silence, and some listening to the poems and tales of heroes of the olden time that were told by the king's bards and shanachies.
Now all went happily with the Fair Strangers until the crimson berries were ripening on the quicken-tree near the Fairy Palace. For the berries possessed secret virtues known only to a man of the Dedannans, and learned from him by Sheela the Scribe, who put him under gesa not to reveal the charm to any one else. Whosoever ate of the honey-sweet, scarlet-glowing fruit felt a cheerful flow of spirits, as if he had tasted wine or mead, and whosoever ate a sufficient number of them was almost certain to grow younger. These things were written in the Speckled Book of Salemina, but in druidical ink, undecipherable to all eyes but those of the Scribe herself.
So, wishing that none should possess the secret but themselves, the Fair Strangers set the Gilla Dacker+ to watch the fruit (putting him first under gesa to eat none of the berries himself, since he was already too cheerful and too young to be of much service); and thus, in their absence, the magical tree was never left alone.
+Could be freely translated as the Slothful Button Boy.
Nevertheless, when Finola the Festive went forth to the chase one day, she found a quicken berry glowing like a ruby in the highroad, and Sheela plucked a second from under a gnarled thorn on the Slope of the Chariots, and Pearla discovered a third in the curiously- compounded, swiftly-satisfying loaf of Toma. Then the Fair Strangers became very angry, and sent out their trusty fleet-footed couriers to scour the land for the invaders; for they knew that none of the Dedannans would take the berries, being under gesa not to do so. But the couriers returned, and though they were men able to trace the trail of a fox through nine glens and nine rivers, they could discover no proof of the presence of a foreign foe in the mayden cantred of Devorgilla.
Then the hearts of the Fair Strangers were filled with grief and gall, for they distrusted the couriers, and having consulted the Ard-ri, they set forth themselves to find and conquer the invader; for the king told them that there was one other quicken-tree, more beautiful and more magical than that growing by the Fairy Palace, and that it was set in another part of the bright-blooming, sweet- scented old garden,--namely, in the heart of the labyrinthine maze of the Wise Woman of Wales; but as no one of them, neither the Gilla Dacker nor those who pursued him, had ever, even with the aid of the Magic Thread-Clue, reached the heart of the maze, there was no knowledge among them of the second quicken-tree. The king also told Sheela the Scribe, secretly, that one of his knights had found a money-piece and a breviary in the forest of Rosnaree; and the silver was unlike any ever used in the country of the Dedannans, and the breviary could belong only to a pious Gael known as Loskenn of the Bare Knees.
Now Sheela the Scribe, having fasted from midnight until dawn, gazed upon the Horn of Foreknowledge, and read there that it was wiser for her to remain on guard at the Fairy Palace, while her sisters explored the secret fastnesses of the labyrinth.
When Finola was apparelled to set forth upon her quest, Pearla thought her the loveliest maiden upon the ridge of the world, and wondered whether she meant to conquer the invader by force of arms or by the power of beauty.
The rose and the lily were fighting together in her face, and one could not tell which of them got the victory. Her arms and hands were like the lime, her mouth was as red as a ripe strawberry, her foot as small and as light as another one's hand, her form smooth and slender, and her hair falling down from her head under combs of gold.++ One could not look at her without being 'all over in love with her,' as Oisin said at his first meeting with Niam of the Golden Hair. And as for Pearla, the rose on her cheeks was heightened by her rage against the invader, the delicate blossom of the sloe was not whiter than her neck, and her glossy chestnut ringlets fell to her waist.
++Description of the Princess in Guleesh na Guss Dhu.
Then the Gilla Dacker unleashed Bran, the keen-scented terrier hound, and put a pearl-embroidered pillion on Enbarr of the Flowing Mane, and the two dauntless maidens leaped upon her back, each bearing a broad shield and a long polished, death-dealing spear. When Enbarr had been given a free rein she set out for the labyrinth, trailing the Magic Thread-Clue behind her, cleaving the air with long, active strides; and if you know what the speed of a swallow is, flying across a mountain-side, or the dry wind of a March day sweeping over the plains, then you can understand nothing of the swiftness of this steed of the flowing mane, acquired by the day by the maydens of Devorgilla.
Many were the dangers that beset the path of these two noble champions on their quest for the Fairy Quicken Tree. Here they met an enormous white stoat, but this was slain by the intrepid Bran, and they buried its bleeding corse and raised a cairn over it, with the name 'Stoat' graven on it in Ogam; there a druidical fairy mist sprang up in their path to hide the way, but they pierced it with a note of their far-reaching, clarion-toned voices,--an art learned in their native land beyond the wave.
Now the dog Bran, being unhungered, and refusing to eat of Toma's loaf, as all did who were ignorant of its druidical purpose, fell upon the Magic Thread-Clue and tore it in twain. This so greatly affrighted the champions that they sounded the Dord-Fian slowly and plaintively, hoping that the war-cry might bring Sheela to their rescue. This availing nothing, Finola was forced to slay Bran with her straight-sided, silver-shining spear; but this she felt he would not mind if he could know that he would share the splendid fate of the stoat, and speedily have a cairn raised over him, with the word 'Bran' graven upon it in Ogam,--since this is the consolation offered by the victorious living to all dead Celtic heroes; and if it be a poor substitute for life, it is at least better than nothing.
It was now many hours after noon, and though to the Fair Strangers it seemed they had travelled more than forty or a hundred miles, they were apparently no nearer than ever to the heart of the labyrinth: and this from the first had been the pestiferous peculiarity of that malignantly meandering maze. So they dismounted, and tied Enbarr to the branch of a tree, while they refreshed themselves with a mouthful of Toma's loaf; and Finola now put her thumb under her 'tooth of knowledge,' for she wished new guidance and inspiration, and, being more than common modest, she said: "Inasmuch as we are fairer than all the other maydens in this labyrinth, why, since we cannot find the heart of the maze, do we not entice the invaders from their hiding-place by the quicken-tree; and when we see from what direction they advance, fall upon and slay them; and after raising the usual cairn to their memory, and carving their names over it in the customary Ogam, run to the enchanted tree and gather all the berries that are left? For this is the hour when Sheela brews the tea, and the knights and the ladies quaff it from our golden cups; and truly I am weary of this quest, and far rather would I be there than here."
So Pearla the Melodious took her timpan,*+ and chanted a Gaelic song that she had learned in the country of the Dedannans; and presently a round-polished, red-gleaming quicken berry dropped into her lap, and another into Finola's, and, looking up, they saw nought save only a cloud of quicken berries falling through the air one after the other. And this caused them to wonder, for it seemed like unto a snare set for them; but Pearla said, "There is nought remaining for us but to meet the danger."
"It is well," replied Finola, shaking down the mantle of her ebon locks, and setting the golden combs more firmly in them; "only, if I perish, I prithee let there be no cairns or Ogams. Let me fall, as a beauty should, face upward; and if it be but a swoon, and the invader be a handsome prince, see that he wakens me in his own good way."
"To arms, then!" cried Pearla, and, taking up their spears and shields, the Fair Strangers dashed blindly in the direction whence the berries fell.
"To arms indeed, but to yours or ours?" called two voices from the heart of the labyrinth; and there, in an instant, the two brave champions, Finola and Pearla, found the Fairy Tree hanging thick with scarlet berries, and under its branches, fit fruit indeed to raise the spirits or bring eternal youth, were, in the language of the Dedannans, Loskenn of the Bare Knees and the Bishop of Ossory,-- known to the Children of Corr the Swift-Footed as Ronald Macdonald and Himself!
And the hours ran on; and Sheela the Scribe brewed and brewed and brewed and brewed the tea at her table in the Peacock Walk, and the knights and ladies quaffed it from the golden cups belonging to the Wise Woman of Wales; but Finola the Festive and Pearla the Melodious lingered in the labyrinth with Loskenn of the Bare Knees and the Bishop of Ossory. And they said to one another, "Surely, if it were so great a task to find the heart of this maze, we should be mad to stir from the spot, lest we lose it again."
And Pearla murmured, "That plan were wise indeed, save that the place seemeth all too small for so many."
Then Finola drew herself up proudly, and replied, "It is no smaller for one than for another; but come, Loskenn, let us see if haply we can lose ourselves in some path of our own finding."
And this they did; and the content of them that departed was no greater than the content of them that were left behind, and the sun hid himself for very shame because the brightness of their joy was so much more dazzling than the glory of his own face. And nothing more is told of what befell them till they reached the threshold of the Old Hall; and it was not the sun, but the moon, that shone upon their meeting with Sheela the Scribe.