The Master-Weaver


THIS is the story of a woman whose imagination said yes, when her heart meant no, and who paid for her sin with twenty-five dead years; and of a man who took defeat as if it were victory, and in the end won his fee of happiness.

There is a little village in Ireland that lies one-third of the way between Dublin and Belfast. Its people have all the industry of the North Irish, and all the poetry of the Southern; and this is well, for they can ply their trade as weavers of linen, and at the same time embroider with dreams lives that would be, otherwise, loo work-ridden for joy. From daylight till dark, and often well on into candle-light, can be heard the hum of the looms, and can be seen the gleam of white bare feet on the treadles, and dark heads bowed over the smooth threads. There are those who say that no other linen in all the world is as fair and strong as the linen of the weavers of Ballycloonagh; and there are a few mystics who even say that a board spread with such linen never lacks plenty, nor do those who sit about it lack happiness.

The Irish must either lead or follow, and so, always, the village of Ballycloonagh had a master-weaver, one who not only wove fastest and best, but who arranged for the sale of his work and his fellows’. As far back as the memory of the oldest inhabitant could reach, a McSweeney had held the honor, by merit and by tacit election. It was the pride of the family to deserve their distinction; and so when Michael McSweeney, at twenty, took his father’s place as masterweaver, there was none to deny his right.

He was an industrious young fellow, and so quick-fingered at the loom that he could well afford the twilight walks he often took with Aileen Dwyer. A pretty pair, the old women, sitting at the cottage doors, called them as they strolled down the little main street of the village to the road that for generations had lured the feet of lovers, and that pointed them with part of its white length to the mountains, and with the other part to the sea; that led them by the ruths, where the children sat till nightfall waiting for the Good Little People to appear; and that, perhaps, had won a life of its own from all the heart-riches which had passed over it, — for here had been all the joys and sharp griefs of youth, and, at times, the memories of the old.

But Michael McSweeney thought little enough of where they walked, on the one night that he always said took all of the dreariness out of the days that came after, and made up for the emptiness of those that went before; for Michael was of the company of those aristocrats of the soul who are spiritually frugal, and know how to make joy fertile in the arid places of life. He had just shown Aileen, somehow, blunderingly, what was in his heart, and she had told him that she loved him, too. They were in that most precious of moments to lovers, when realization is so fresh that it seems that time can never dull the lyrical sense of belonging to each other.

Michael had pushed her a little away from him, and was towering above her, his great hands touching her shoulders gently.

“Is it sure you are, ’t is you ? ” he asked in an awed tone; “and’t is not dreaming I am ? ”

She looked up at him, glad of his strength, his great frame, his irregular shock of hair, and the wide gray eyes that always had a smile in them. She was more of a dreamer than himself. As they stood there, she thought that he might be one of the old heroes come back — King Ivor, or Finn of the Mighty Arm, or Conn of the hundred battles, whom none could conquer in war, and who drooped to the knee of St. Patrick at last, when the pagan days ended for Ireland.

“You, that are always talkin’ to me of Grainne, and the enchanted forest, and Queen Mave and Diarmid,” he said, “tell me, is it back in the ould days we are, or wall I wake up to-morrow and find myself at my loom, and no Aileen in my life at all?”

“I am in your life forever and ever,” she said.

She was a slender little thing, dark and soft and loving, but very timid, for she lived with a shrewish aunt, who twitted her with her helplessness and poverty; and it was to make herself brave, by ignoring facts, that she wove her visions and saw herself a lady of the old days, with all the hills of Ireland her own, and now Michael to be her knight.

“Aye,” Michael said, “nothing can take you away from me, remember that now. If one of your pishogues should spring up now and whiff you away to India, sure’t is my love would draw you back some day. I’d work on my linen and I’d weave in spells, and some day the spells would tangle themselves about you, and back you’d come.”

“I often dream of other lands,” she murmured. “Is it true that you and me will be always together, Michael, always in Ballycloonagh ? ”

“Where else? Maybe a trip to Dublin every five years. You never hope to see London, I’m thinkin’?”

“Just your face for always,” she said. “But what good is there in me for a weaver ? ”

“Little dear rose of my heart, I can work for two,” he said. “You’ll never touch a loom again.”

“I won’t then,” she sighed gratefully.

They walked on, hand in hand, stopping now and then to ask each other, breathlessly, if it were true; if love had really given them to each other, forgetting that there were in the world such forces as faithlessness or parting, absence or poverty or sorrow.

When Michael at last left her on her doorstep, Aileen was too deeply moved to sleep. The little cottage of her aunt would have closed in on her and smothered her like the folds of one of her own green dragons. She was trembling — afraid of the future. Suddenly, the village that she had known all her life became an alien place; Michael, her lover, was a dream; the realities — she did not know whfit they were, because she could feel nothing but the throbbing of her heart. As if to run away from all that beset her, she hurried along the south road that led to the sea, thinking that when she was tired her little world would come back. Her eyes raced into the dark lanes of trees; she threw back her head and let her gaze speed, unseeing, over the sky and the land and the stars.

Her heart throbbed louder than ever, — no, that sound was not her heart; it was the faint beat of a horse’s hoofs growing clearer and clearer. She drew closer to the side of the ditch, and waited. A rider galloped out of the shadows and, checking his horse beside her, leaped from his saddle, with a short laugh.

“Ha, little Aileen Dwyer,” he said, “it is almost as if you were waiting for me, my girl.”

She dropped a courtesy, for it was young Philip Carew of the Manse. The Manse was the one great house of the village, where a father and mother, two sons and several daughters, proud of their ancestry, starved bitterly together. This night, the second son, Philip, had wrung from his father his patrimony of sixty pounds, had taken his one possession, his horse, and was riding away from his old home forever. He was a handsome, ardent young man; reckless, but shrewd; kind, in a careless fashion, and prone now and then to a wild impulse, which he always treated afterwards as if it had been a staid calculation.

“So you were not waiting for me, little Aileen?” he asked.

“I—I don’t know, sir,” she stammered confusedly, and courtesied again. As she straightened, her lovely dark face lifted, her lips soft and wondering, her eyes as deep as the woods behind her, Philip Carew caught her in his arms and, setting her on his horse, leaped up behind her. He gave rein, and they galloped along the road to the sea.

“We’re going to America,” said young Philip Carew, in his deep voice. “What does it matter over there that you were born in a weaver’s cabin ? We’ll be rich, and when you are my wife I’ll give you everything out of the coffers of all the world. You’ll go ? What good is there in you for a weaver?”

The sentence beat over and over again in Aileen’s brain. Her own words. She had said them to Michael, “What good is there in me for a weaver?”

“ These little hands will never work again, for we shall be rich,” said Philip Carew. “Shall I put you down, Aileen? Will you go back to the village and weave cloths till your little fingers look like the gnarled bark on the trees here ? Shall I put you down, Aileen?”

Nothing was real any more to Aileen. Perhaps it was the old time; perhaps he was a knight carrying her away, his proper spoil because he had swept her upon his horse; perhaps this had all happened before. Perhaps she was Macol borne away by the black King of Leinster, leaving woe behind her. Perhaps she was dreaming and would wake up in a moment and find herself on the doorstep of her aunt’s cottage.

“Will you come with me, Aileen?” Carew whispered.

And something that was not herself, forever and ever she knew it was not herself, told him “yes.”

And with that word she wove her fate and Michael’s as surely as he, at that moment, wove his fair white linen, and thrilled with the thought that she was his.


Though he walked with the aristocrats of the soul, Michael had his full meed of suffering in the long loss of Aileen; but he believed that his suffering did not matter; that it had nothing to do with the joys and sorrows of other people, or the swing of the seasons and the years. His pain was more subtle and many-sided than might be believed, none the less so that he was incapable of analyzing the forces against and with him. There was the pity of his friends, which he shrank from, and the jeers of a few jealous and lowsouled folk, which he must ignore; worst of all, there was the bewildering and crushing sorrow of Aileen’s treachery. He could not understand it. To accept it meant disloyalty to himself and to her. To save them both — to give them to each other again — he forced himself not to believe in it. Something had happened, no one knew what, to part them for a time. He shut his eyes to the fact that she had gone away with Philip Carew. They had been parted, yet some day, in some other world, perhaps, they would meet. Meantime that one sacred night had made them each other’s forever.

But because a man cannot wait with folded hands, he bowed himself to his work. Such a master-weaver the country had never known before. At first his energy displayed itself in a management which gave more bread to his fellow workers. But after a time, a few of the most feeling of them, the truest Celts, began to know that there was something in the linen that came from under Michael’s hands which made it different from any other linen. Many of the weavers departed, here and there, from the stock patterns, as their fancy led; that was one reason why the Ballycloonagh linens were prized by connoisseurs. But when those that had the gift of the eye gazed for long on Michael’s weaving, they felt that there was something in the delicate lines and curves and tendrils of the shamrocks not to be seen otherwhere; else why should one begin to think of dreamy forests, and tender ancient tales; of old loves that were dead, and still not lost, and of sacrifices that added a deeper note to the songs of the choir invisible ? Michael’s soul was slipping through his fingers into his fair white linen. All he felt for himself and Aileen, as he wove, somehow put a life into the threads — the sorrows he would fain have taken from her and kept all to himself; the loneliness of each; the life they might have lived together in the quiet Irish village, and the wonder if they were not repeating an old grief lived long ago in the lands between the hills and the sea, when Ireland was young and, though pagan, ready for the sword-sharp voice of God.

He had no thought of sending a message to Aileen, and she none of receiving one; and yet, in a vague way, one came to her. She used to say to herself that she died the moment that something, not herself, said yes to Philip Carew, as he galloped along the road to the sea that was to take her from all that she loved. Strange to say, it was never the separation from her kin that took the heart out of her and made her a shadow of her old self; she missed no one but Michael. The worst was her knowledge that, somehow, she was separated from her own soul. That, perhaps, was her purgatory, she thought, to be in one world with her body, while her soul lay dead or asleep in another.

She was silent, withdrawn into her dreams, not at all in Philip Carew’s world. Had she loved him, she could have risen to his every want, for, indeed, she was teachable enough. From the very first he had teachers for her, and she learned French, and knew how to manage a house, and, as time wore on, was able, with perfect self-possession, to take her place among conspicuous people.

“ But, confound it all,” grumbled Philip Carew, “where’s the spirit and dash all gone to? I did n’t know I was marrying a painted picture for a wife.”

Her one child might have brought her back to Philip’s world, but he was his father’s son — so markedly so that Philip began to ignore the fact that Aileen Dwyer was his mother. This little Philip Carew would inherit great wealth — great enough to more than preserve the traditions of the old race from whence he came. The father meant that the world should forget the poverty in which his house had dwelt for three generations. Some day he should go back, and then — Meanwhile a passive, nerveless woman was no guide, even for a babe in arms. Philip did not admit, even to himself, that he did not want his son shadowed with the influence of peasant blood. In effect he took the child almost entirely from his mother, and Aileen made no protest. She loved the boy, indeed, but she knew from the beginning that in all the realities of life he did not need her, any more than her husband needed her. A shadow wife, a shadow mother, — that was enough for them. They were fond of her in an indulgent way, proud that she always looked well and never blundered, and irritated that their interests could not stir her, — that she was so spiritless, so remote.

Yet her world of fancies, her real world, was a vivid place enough. In the days when she was alive, the days of the village life in Ballycloonagh, all culminating in that night of nights when she promised herself to Michael McSweeaaey, and then foreswore them both, — in those days her dreams were all of the old heroes and lovers of Ireland, of the time when the country was young and the cities were hamlets, while the site of the present-day hamlets were wide swaying forests; when the voices of birds and waters were higher than the voices of shop and street, and when poetry was in the hearts of men instead of in books.

Yet now that she no longer had Michael, to whom she used to tell her dreams; now that she listened no longer to his attempts, not always skillful, to draw parallels between those old loves and their own; now that she was alone with a dead soul, her thoughts took a very different trend. She wove into the web of her dreams the lives that she and Michael might have lived. Without any thought of disloyalty to Philip Carew, at the end of the first year of marriage with him she had built a series of incidents that would have marked the stages of the first year she should have lived with Michael. In the stead of little Philip, there were, as the years passed, dream-children, with Michael’s hair and eyes. In Michael’s cottage she stepped across the earthen floor, stooping to the open hearth; and this, many a time, when she was listening to music by great artists, or even dining with men and women whose names spelled power to several millions of less noted Americans.

What helped to make her dreams concrete were various stores of wonderful linens, wdiich she began to hoard after her first year in America. If Michael’s fellow workers ate white bread and wore warmer cloth, their ease was due to Aileen’s gold. It was the one external transaction of her life not open to Philip Carew. Her allowance was nearly all spent for the work of those side by side with whom she used to weave. She could close her eyes and see the dark heads bending over the looms, and the white feet twinkling over the treadles.

Michael’s work she kept apart, in oaken chests carved by cunning hands with old Celtic figures; and many an hour she sat tracing, with soft forefinger, Michael’s skillful weaving; but she did not respond to the dreams, her old dreams, which Michael had woven therein. She only held more firmly to that thread of a shadowy mutual life she had made for the two of them. And as the years went on, her mind leaped ahead and she saw for them an old age together, when all the children would be gone and the weaving done, and two, whom time had forgotten, might sit in peace together. For if Michael, once no dreamer, now saw a vision of life with Aileen in another world, Aileen, the former dreamer, now saw only a life in this world. It was lips and hands of flesh and blood which called her.

It might seem that the two, who, out of love for each other, had each tried to live in the other’s groove, were at cross-purposes ; but love is greater than any terms in which it can express itself, and so, as the years passed, they drew closer. The linen that Michael wove, and that Aileen pressed against her wistful face, was a message to her, and though she could send none to him, her heart spoke, and his, somehow, received its comfort. With the years his inspiration grew; his hands flew faster and faster; the wonderful patterns he wove grew deeper in meaning to the few who had the vision to see, and carried a stronger hope to the one woman who had forgotten her visions, but never her love.

And then on a day the oaken chests were locked. Women fitted black stuffs about Aileen’s shrinking form, and her son sobbed in a room next a darkened chamber. For Philip Carew was dead, and the dreams that had made Aileen’s own life had, somehow, tiled, too. In all the world there was only nothingness, and she was full of fear.


Young Philip Carew and his wife looked furtively at the face of the woman who sat between them on the back seat of the motor-car. Again and again their own glances crossed, and dropped. They were pleasant young people, practical and rather conventional, and they did not understand the transformation that had taken place in Aileen Carew since she had left the boat at Queenstown and begun the journey northward along the road that led from the sea.

Before the elder Philip Carew had died he had told his son the dream of his life, and charged him to fulfill it. He was to go home and build up again the house of Carew. In his earliest childhood Philip had drawn in the love of Ireland from his father’s lips. It takes fully two generations to kill the Irish love for the green land that is the cradle of the race that gives the world romance. Young Philip loved the hills and sea and waving woods of Ballycloonagh as if he had always lived among them. He knew every room in the old house in which his father had been born.

During the elder Philip’s last illness his brother died, childless, and, too late, he was heir to the barren Irish acres that meant more to him than all his wealth. Fearful that young Philip might not carry out his wishes fully, he guarded carefully the chances for the success of his dearest dream. He had charged his son to wait at least a year before going to the old home, and, if possible, to let the journey be his honeymoon. Then surely, with the sorrow of his father’s death softened, with the joy of the bridegroom to glorify all that his eyes saw, the home of his people would mean to him something of what it had meant to others of his race.

Philip and his mother helped each other as best they could through the first months of their loss; but they had never understood each other. Aileen seemed to her son strangely broken and helpless; her one vital wish was that he should marry his Cora soon and be as happy as he could. When he told her that, in obedience to his father’s plan, he and Cora were going to Ireland for their honeymoon, she said she would go too. Philip hesitated; he knew that his mother’s associations had been humble, and yet, surely, she must have grown away from her old companions; surely she would feel herself a part of her husband’s people. He felt ashamed of his hesitation; he and Cora were beginning a happy life from which they must give generous largess to her.

And so Philip’s mother had come to Ireland, and they were stealing wondering glances at her, feeling thoroughly embarrassed. Was this the pale, remote lady whose maid had dressed her and helped her on deck only two hours before ? With the first glance at her green, green land, an old light had come back to her eyes. Now, as the motor-car slipped northwards, the spirit of Aileen Dwyer came back into her face. Little curls were stealing from her carefully dressed hair and dancing on her forehead and neck; her cheeks were pink; her lips parted. She laughed, a laugh that Michael used to say reminded him of the talking of the water in St. Patrick’s spring where the first pagans were baptized, — water that had gone mad since over the joy of all those souls.

She had forgotten her son and daughter, and all of her old life; her youth was coming back, and all the shadowy life between had fled her mind. The real things of the world were beginning, and the signposts to them were the still waters of the River Slaney, the blue hill of Oulard, the road that led to Glendalough, and Bray Head lifting stark above the sea. She begrudged the hour they stopped in Dublin to lunch. She wanted to drive on and on, the while the old life rushed back to meet her.

They halted at last at a town three miles from Ballycloonagh, and there Philip decided they had better remain till the morning. He was disturbed about his mother; he wondered if Cora had noticed the burr that had come back to his mother’s speech. But not afternoon tea, not the deference of the inn-keeper and his servants, not her maid’s ministrations, could bring back the Aileen of half a dozen hours before. Her soul had come back to her, and was stamping its possession on her body.

She was urged to lie down, and, under Cora’s supervision, her maid darkened her room. After they had gone, Aileen lay and laughed at them for a few moments. Then she rose, slipped along the passage, down the back-stairs, and out of the back-door to the path that skirted the road lying between the mountains and the sea.

Oh, that road, that road, that road! How it seemed to leap to her feet; that road along which lovers had walked before ever there was a city or church in all the land. Why, she used to think, that was the tree under which Miurne stood as she waited for Cumnhal. All the old stories came back — thoughts of the heroes and lovers like Michael, and the women like herself, whom a man could love so much that, though the road to her was death, it was a path of joy.

The miles fell swiftly under her feet; the sun had long dropped; the twilight was coming and the villagers were at supper when she passed along the single crooked street of Ballycloonagh. No one spoke to her, though some heads peered curiously out of windows as she passed. There was Michael’s cottage; there was no light within; perhaps he was eating supper in the dark.

She went inside; he was not there, nor were there signs that he had supped. She laughed softly; of course, it was the first Thursday in the month, the day he always took his linen into the town to ship it to England or America. He had woven till tea-time, of course, and then he had walked to town.

She felt for the matches, lit a candle, and drew the curtains. She looked, with a doubtful smile, at her gown, and then, hesitatingly, went into the bedroom that adjoined the living-room. In a few moments she came back wearing a dress which had belonged to Michael’s mother — a shabby scarlet dress that Michael had liked; he had said that some day Aileen should wear scarlet.

Singing an old song, she knelt at the hearth and made a fire. She stepped back and forth to the cupboard and laid the table. When the kettle was singing and the tea ready to be made, she went to Michael’s loom. She slipped off her shoes and stockings, and felt for the treadles; with unaccustomed fingers she caught at the threads. Always she had been clumsy at the loom, and now she was spoiling one of Michael’s loveliest patterns.

For the first time a little fear struck her heart. It had never come to her that Michael might be married — he was hers, hers! It had never come to her that he would not want her back after all the years; but now as she faltered at the loom she wondered if long disuse had made her forget the little homely ways that Michael loved.

Then he came, and at first he thought he was simply dreaming a little more vividly than usual; but when he saw her welcoming face change into doubt at his still look, then he knew that love had shown him her face again, not once, but forever. They said no word for a long time; they held hands and looked into each other’s eyes, and did not see the messages time had printed on each face. And so, softly, they bridged their lost years.

Then, still in silence, he led her through the crooked street of the village to a certain stretch on the road, that they might find again that hour they had lost so many years ago. And they were looking at each other’s faces with infinite understanding, and Aileen’s heart was beating louder and louder — And again, it was not her heart, but the beating of a horse’s hoofs. A rider galloped out of the shadows and checked his horse beside her.

“Mother!” cried Philip Carew, “how dare you, — I mean, how could you ?”

He leaped from his saddle and would have lifted her upon the horse, but she drew back.

“Something’s wrong with the car, and I thought it best not to get a carriage,” he said. “What dress is that you are in ?”

Aileen looked from her lover to her son. In a flash, she saw what her new life might mean to Philip. Humiliation — the thwarting of his father’s hopes and his own. She hesitated, and for a moment she dropped Michael’s hand. Then she lifted it again and pressed it passionately to her breast.

“Philip,” she said, “you’re my child, but I was Michael’s before you were born. I’m in his debt for twenty-five years of sorrow, for’t is him that has suffered, while I was dead, since the night I was traitor to him.”

They had no need of speech, she and Michael. He felt what she wanted of him, and so he spoke to Philip: —

“You’re young. You’ll make your life, as others do, in spite of shame and a bit of thwarting. We’ll do what we can for you, Aileen and I. There’s many a spot in Ireland we can find, so we find it together; linens and cottages enough, and while we have each other we have all the world.”

They looked into each other’s eyes, and they forgot Philip Carew. He was practical and conventional, rich and impatient of peasants, but he was a Celt, too; he had a touch of that imagination that is the crown of his race, and he knew that he was in the presence of a love that was greater than his will, or his mother’s, or Michael’s. There they stood, those two, one who had known all that wealth could give for more than half her life, and one who had never been served by others; one who was trained in all the usages of the sophisticated world, and one who had never been fifty miles from his little hamlet; but love had made them equals. As they stood hand in hand, looking into each other’s eyes, time and sorrow were as nothing to them; and perhaps they were somehow an atonement to the spirits of other lovers who had suffered and lost, and died unsatisfied.

Young Philip Carew turned away, sobbing as he had sobbed when his father died; but the lovers did not hear. Michael was thinking of an old Celtic song, the refrain of which ran, —

Death to us all, and his own life to each!

Aileen was thinking of the Wonder of their deliverance to each other. She held close to her lover, lest her dream should escape her. And together they turned back along the road that leads from the sea to the mountains.