The Coming O' the King
WHEN summer goes over the hills of Ireland, she plucks the purple of the heather, and snatches the blue of the sky, to carry southward with her. It is the sweeping of her garments that turns the meadows brown. The echo of her laughter among the hills makes the throstles leave their hedges and whirl into the sky after her. When she has passed, the rains come, beating and insistent for days, over the land. Brown, bare-limbed herdboys hurry up to the pastures to drive their cattle back to dry byres. The turf is stacked anew, under thicker thatch, to keep it ripe for a bright burning; and as the winter nights lengthen, the hill people gather closer round their hearths, to tell again those stories they love best, beginning, “Once on a time there was a King of Ireland.”
No country is left more desolate by the passing of summer than Ireland; no people feel that desolation more than her people of the hills. But with a deep courage born of weary, toilsome years, they drive out fear of hunger, failure, or great loneliness, with promises of better things to come. Nobody has so little that he cannot share with somebody who has less, and few hearts have grown so bitter that they cannot say, “ God prosper ye well,” as their hands give the dole of bread.
When summer has gone, then it is that the workhouse road is well traveled. From bogland or hill, aye, from every corner of the country, come the children of the third and fourth generations, eager for a winter’s shelter, and three meals a day of black tea, stirabout, and soda bread. There are cripples, consumptives, drunkards, and tinkers, halt-wits and beggars, — the helplessly old and the helplessly young. Some come from long habit — as a bear to its hole, or a bee to its hive. Some come to wait for better times, or a change of luck; and some — to die.
The gray of the sky is not more gray than the walls that shelter them. The open road holds as much of promise or good cheer; but there are benches here to sit on, and dry beds at night, and when the wind blows through the Gap it is well to be under cover. Moreover there is a turf fire on the coldest days, with occasional doles of snuff and whiskey; and for the sick, medicine and care from the gentle Sisters of St. Catherine.
It was December when Peter came. He had lain ill with the fever at McDiarmuid’s since September, and could not be moved. Nora McDiarmuid had been loath to let him go. She had tended him with dumb patience, and cut down her allowance of food and Barney’s that he might have enough. But hunger came upon them at last, and, with a philosophy born of eternal want, she sent for the parish doctor.
“ I’d like to keep the lad for Barney’s sake,” she told him, “ but what will feed two will no feed three, I’m thinkin’.”
Thus Peter passed into the workhouse.
For a few days he kept apart from the others — the weakness and semi-delirium of the fever still on him. He found a bench somewhat sheltered from the wind that was blowing sharp from the north, and there, bit by bit, memories of what had happened came back to him. He pieced them together in his half-witted fashion. He had tramped from the harvest fair at Ardara, he remembered playing in the Diamond for the boys and girls to dance. Then it had rained — how many days he could not count: perhaps two, perhaps three; and tramp as hard as he might, he could not keep the warmth in his body, nor the pain out of his heart. He had forgotten where he slept. All he remembered was reaching the crossroads at last, and finding the gray stone under the Lazy Bush more than half-covered by water.
It certainly was good to get back to the crossroads, the gray stone, and the Lazy Bush. Peter’s mind cleared, and the memory of ache and cold, which had made him huddle into the corner of the bench, left him; and he stretched his feet contentedly in the imaginary puddle by the gray stone. There was the road over the hill to take him to Barney’s, there was the lower road leading to Michael McNeil’s, — which would he be taking?
Here Peter’s mind stopped piecing, and took up again the momentous decision concerning the road. This was ever the way with Peter; the half-witted lack initiative. Every other road swung open before him: he could choose intelligently between a wake at Killybegs and a market-day at Donegal, — and once on the road, he would follow it straight as a fox to its covert. But when the choice lay between the two friends dearest to his heart, Peter’s mind was inadequate. Then he always left the decision to fate, who, in the form of the next passer-by, would carry him along on whichever road he was taking himself.
Peter had sat for an hour or more, while the rain beat the last leaves from the Lazy Bush, and the cold crept closer to his heart. Then fate came, — driving a gray donkey, — and Peter was carried up the hill and put to bed in Barney’s bed; and Nora nursed him through days of burning fever, and nights of terrifying nightmare. It was a miracle that Peter fought through and came back at all to claim his scanty inheritance of brains and property. His strength had gone, the feebleness of old age had come at last.
Peter had never owned anything since the day he was born, except his fiddle and his dreams, — the dreams he had brought with him from that other country, the fiddle he had acquired through the caprice of a stranger and a bazaar lottery-ticket. He had lived his sixty years happily; and he had paid for every meal or night’s lodging he had taken, either with service or with his music.
In planting-time, there was not a farmer from Ballyshannon to Malin Head who would not care for him in return for his work. When the gardens were made, and the fields green with the new corn, he would take to the road again, and fiddle his way to the fairs and the county feis. Whoever wanted Peter for the planting time kept him through the winter, and he was free to come and go as he pleased, — spending long days with the two best comrades, Michael of the low road and Barney of the hills.
Now things were changed — and no one wanted him for a spring planting. He was eating the bread of charity for the first time, and it tasted very bitter. Peter hunched himself along the bench farther from the door. He pulled the ragged homespun coat closer about him, while he made and remade the story of those days.
A smile came into Peter’s face, his eyes filled with the light of a great vision. There was something he had forgotten. Manus of Killybegs had said it, therefore it must be true, — for Manus was a knowledgeable man who spoke with authority. It was while he still lay ill in Barney’s bed. Nora and Manus had drawn their chairs close to the turf, and Manus was talking. The words repeated themselves with slow precision in Peter’s brain. “ I tell ye, Nora, Ireland will be comin’ into her own again. Her green fields will be ours to till, her laws will be ours to make. Her speech will be the sweet Gaelic tongue; and there will be plenty to keep our childher by us in our old age. There will be no heart-breakin’s, no workhouses. And Ireland will be havin’ her king back soon, aye, soon; do ye mind! ”
Had not Peter heard tales of the King of Ireland since he could remember ? Not a night was spent around the hearth-side that some one had not something wonderful to tell of him. And now that Manus had said the King was coming back, all would be well. Peter laughed contentedly. The workhouse walls were not so gray — and the chill wind blowing in through the cracks of the door felt mild.
“He’ll be wantin’ some one to fiddle for him; and I be’s a powerful sthrong hand at shinin’ a crown,” said Peter.
The next day he joined the group of inmates round the deal table. Bitterness no longer dwelt with him. In one hand he carried his fiddle, in the other he held a bundle of dirty rags which he had begged from the housekeeper.
“ Ye’ll play us a tune? ” asked Teig, another half-wit. But Peter shook his head.
“ I have no time to play, the day. It’s gettin’ ready I am for some one — some one who be’s cornin’ afther me soon — mortial soon, I’m thinkin’.”
There was mystery in Peter’s voice, and his eyes looked beyond them at something far away. He sat down with the fiddle across his knees and began polishing it. The inmates drew their chairs closer about him.
“ I did not know ye had any childher, Peter,” said one.
“ Sure an’ he has n’t; he never married,” said another.
“ Maybe it be’s a brother,” suggested Teig.
“ And it might be a sister,” said Peter, “ only I have n’t the like. No, it be’s some one much grander than any of them.”
Teig pulled his coat with nervous, coaxing fingers. “ Would ye be afther tellin’ us ? ”
“ Aye, I might. But ye must not be lettin’ on to John-at-the-door-there, for he will no let him in. It’s the King I am expectin’.”
A loud guffaw followed this revelation, and one of the tinkers turned to Peter mockingly: —
“ Shame on ye, Peter, an’ ye a good Irishman, to be askin’ help from the King of England! ”
Anger blazed in Peter’s eyes. He raised the fiddle threateningly above the tinker’s head. There was a moment of stillness when every man drew in his breath, — hard, — then the fiddle dropped back gently on Peter’s knee.
“ I’ll no sthrike ye wi’ the Lad, it might be hurtin’ him. If ye had any wits at all, ye would know it was the King of Ireland I was meanin’.”
A louder guffaw followed this.
“ Ye be’s foolish entirely,” said the tinker. “ Don’t ye know Ireland has n’t any king ? ”
“ Has n’t she, just?” said Peter.
“ No, she has n’t,” snapped the tinker.
But Peter tapped his head significantly. “ Poor, foolish man, that’s all ye know.”
“ Where’s he comin’ from?” somebody jeered.
“ I ’m no tellin’ ye where he be’s comin’ from, or when he be’s comin’, — but he be’s comin’! ” And Peter went on with the polishing of his fiddle.
From that time on, Peter was the butt of the workhouse. The inmates teased and laughed at him, but he only smiled and tapped his head knowingly as before. “ The poor, foolish childher,” he would say; and his eyes would grow bright with the vision that was always with him.
He spent hours practicing on his fiddle. Each day the fingers grasped the bow less securely, and stumbled more often as they felt for the melodies on the strings. Every piece of brass or pewter that the workhouse owned he polished, making them bright with great patience. Each thing that shone he touched with loving hands. “ I did them,” he would whisper; “ it was Pether that did them. He’ll be lettin’ me do the crown, I’m thinkin’.”
Winter came early that year and stayed long after her time. Ice clung to the brooks, the frozen earth slept, the wind through the Gap blew biting and sharp, — and the hill people looked at their fast dwindling stacks of turf with fear, and heaped the sticks less bountifully on the fire. Day by day Peter’s strength failed. The time came when he could not leave his room; but he sat all day facing the window that looked out on the open road. The children brought his bowl of stirabout and mug of black, unsweetened tea to him, in return for the stories he told them of the King. The children liked the stories. Of the King they were as skeptical as their elders; that is — all but Aisleen. Aisleen believed. She had not been in the world long enough to grow far away from the heart of things; she was not going to stay very long, either; so visions were as real to her as to Peter. Long after the other children had carried the empty mug and bowl away, Aisleen would sit, hugged close to Peter’s side, and listen to more intimate things concerning the King.
“ Ye ’ll no forget me when he comes, Peter. I know where the four-leaved shamrock grows, and I can make soda bread wi’ currants in it.”
And Peter promised — promised by St. Anthony, who never broke his faith with little children—that the King should take her too.
Peter rallied with the first days of spring. The tinker and Teig helped him down the narrow stairs into the courtyard, and there he sat through one radiant day, feeling the warm sunshine steal into his blood again. Aisleen lay beside him. Her small face was full of the wonder of the coming of life to the earth, and the ebbing of life from her — the White Death stood very close to Aisleen. The eyes of both were keen and eager, as they watched for birds to cross the square above their heads.
“There’s a throstle, — and there’s the Devil’s wran,” Peter chuckled.
The next minute he clapped his hand gleefully, as a speck of black shot into the sky.
“ Do ye mind him! do ye mind him, Aisleen. It be’s a lark, an’ him a-burstin’ his heart wi’ singin’ ! ”
Toward evening, he called some of the inmates to him: Teig the tinker and a few others. Holding out a shaking hand, he smiled lovingly, as a father might, on many helpless children.
“ I’ll be leavin’ ye on the morrow. There’s spring in the air, and I’ll be takin’ to the road again. Don’t ye smell the thorn bushes blossomin’ ? Beannacht lib!”
That night they moved Peter into the men’s infirmary, and Aisleen into the children’s ward. All through the next day and night Sister Teresa watched beside Peter’s bed. As the morning came the second day, he grew restless and threw off the covers many times, impatient to be dressed and off.
“ I must be goin’,” he muttered. “ I must be goin’ to meet the King.”
Patiently, Sister Teresa forced him back again and again, until her fragile strength was spent. She could not call for the other sister— she was needed in the children’s ward. What should she do ? She sat and waited anxiously for the next struggle; already Peter’s nerveless fingers were plucking at the blanket. Suddenly her mind conceived the old, old way of quieting a fever-wrought brain. Sitting beside his bed. Sister Teresa took his hands in hers and held them fast.
” Come,” she said, “ we will go together.”
Bit by bit she dressed him, led him down the stairs, through the gray walls, and out upon the open road. And all the while Peter lay peacefully back on his bed and smiled. When they had reached the door he turned.
“ We must be takin’ Aisleen; I promised,” he insisted.
Sister Teresa called her name. Peter reached across the coverlet and took a small hand in one of his; and in the children’s ward the other sister was folding little lifeless fingers over a crucifix.
“ Now we’ll be goin’,” said Peter.
Sister Teresa’s voice went quietly on: “ We are crossing the bridge, there’s a sight of water in the river this year.”
“ Aye, the Marquis will be gettin’ some fine salmon, I’m thinkin’.”
“ See, we are going by the chapel, now.”
“ We’ll go in and say a Hail Mary,” said Peter.
They went; Sister Teresa took the rosary from her belt and guided Peter’s fingers over the beads.
They came back to the road and followed it for a mile. As Peter lay on the cot — his face growing paler, his breath coming fainter — he smelled again the fresh earth-smell of spring. He gathered his hands full of primroses, then gave them to the sister so that he might have the hand free to take Aisleen’s again. He pointed out each thatched cabin he knew; and laughed at a pair of robins he saw quarreling over their nest-building. At last they came to the crossroads.
“ We ’ll go no further,” said Peter. “ We had betther sit down on the gray stone undther the Lazy Bush while I make up my mind will it be the road to Barney’s or the one furninst Michael’s we’ll be takin’.”
There was a long silence. The first yellow light of the new day crept into the room.
I’m thinkin’, just, I’d like to be tellin’ Michael and the wife about the King, — they’d be proud to know it. But there be’s Barney, — I must give him a song wi’ the Lad before I go. Where is the Lad, did I no bring him wi’ me ? ”
The sister took the fiddle and put it on the bed beside him. The hand that was not holding Aisleen’s closed over it tightly.
“ Pether would n’t forget the Lad, no! ”
The sunlight grew stronger in the room.
“ Now I’m wondtherin’, just, will it be Barney or Michael. The road is brighter over the hills — and the buds are crowded thicker on the thorn bushes — there be more than a hundhred larks in the sky, — an’ look ye! ”
Peter leaned forward and pointed to a golden shaft of sunlight on the coverlet. His eyes were vision-filled, his face content. The faintest sigh escaped him, — a spirit breath it was, — and then the sister heard him speak: —
“I be a powerful sthrong hand at shinin’ a crown.”
The King had come.