The King

WALTER MACKEN and his blonde young wife live their country life on the west coast of Ireland, and when in Dublin are to be found in the neighborhood of the Abbey Theatre, where he is one of the leading dramatists and actors. He is the author of two plays and three novelsthe third. Rain on the Wind (Macmillan), being the May selection of the Literary Guild. Mr. Macken writes with a native exuberance; and despite the pressure of Eire’s censorship, he feels that Irish writers will find their best themes and do their best work if their roots are in home soil. Sean O’Faolain and Mary Lavin are two other Atlantic contributors who are with him in this.

by WALTER MACKEN

I SAW the King three times in all. The first time we were endeavoring to rob him. It was our custom during the proper season to adjourn to the small market place where the country people came on a Saturday to sell their eggs and fowl and turf and odds and ends. Always great color there and confusion. Big women in shawls and red petticoats and heavy boots, and their men in bainin coats and ceanneasna trousers and the boots known as farmer’s friends. The smell of porter and horses and asses and potatoes fresh from pits and eggs hot from hens and the yellow pats of butter wrapped in cabbage leaves. Loud talk and braying and waving of ashplants in brown hands and an optimistic street musician playing country songs that brought tears to leathery cheeks and hands to worn purses. The Small Crane they called it and we loved it.

Daneen and Jojo and myself were in it this day. We were sadly in need of equipment to make bows and arrows. In such case all you had to do was to go to this place and when an ass cart swung out of the small square, with the bundles of sally rods tied together and dangling behind, you crept up and pulled at the ends and drew them forth before; the owner was aware of his loss. They were grand and long. The thick end made the bow and the top end, pointed and sharpened, was excellent for hitting and exploding the bulbs in the electric light standards.

So we dodged and laughed and jeered behind their backs at the Irish-speaking countrygoms. We were very swift at this time because it was summer and we wore just torn shirts and trousers and our bare feet. We patted the noses of the hayeating horses and pulled the tail of an ass to see could we tell what the weather would do, Daneen having one in his house, a small yoke of a toy ass with a string tail that could tell what the weather was going to do from the feel of it. The real ass didn’t. Jojo spotted the cart leaving the place.

“Hi, they’s one now, fellas,”Jojo roared pointing at the ass cart with the tips of the bundled sally rods waving behind.

“Get after ‘m, in the name a God,”said Daneen spitting on his palms and rubbing them together as was his custom before action.

We jinked our way after the ass cart. Many people turned and cursed at us, mainly in Irish, which we didn’t understand at this time, so that we weren’t in the least offended. Under horses’ bellies we went too, so that they reared up after we had passed and the owners’ faces got red as they tried to quieten them, and we came up on the back of the home-going cart like panthers, bonding down and our thin hands reaching up. Danceen, who was great at things like this, got the first one. It was a dandy. One great bow and two arrows at least. It would cause great destruction. Jojo pulled next and got one too. It was passable. Then I pulled and of course something went wrong and I nearly pulled the cart off the ass’s back, so that the owner, who was sitting in front, turned and saw us and reached back with the whip and aimed a blow at me. He was successful. I felt the sting of it and it made me mad.

“You bloody oul bogman!” I shouted at him, rubbing my cheek, furious that I had failed.

He said a lot of things then. In Irish. They must have been bad because they twisted his face. He was a strong-looking man with great muscles in his bare neck. I can always remember his face this time, and the other two times too for that matter. A strong face wanting a shave with bristles heavy on it and a mustache creeping down the sides of his mouth making him look like a picture of Genghis Khan in the history book, curse it, at school. His teeth were pointed and very white and he had thick eyebrows that jutted out over his eyes. They were very blue and not sternlooking, mind you. Even while he was cursing me I liked the look of him. He could be someone that you’d say would be great gas.

“Countrygawk, countrygawk, countrygawk!” I blatted at him like a music machine.

He alighted from the cart then and came back waving the whips. We backed away. I backed away first. Then I heard Daneen.

“Jay!” Daneen was ejaculating with awe. “It’s the Potheen King, lads. It’s the Potheen King.”

That stopped us. For wasn’t he a hero? There were more stories about him that could write two books and leave some over afterwards. We were all brought up on tales of him, of his utter cleverality in out witting the hated policemen. I can’t tell you all of them. Just about how he would get potheen past battalions of them. Even when they searched his cart and his ass and his wife and himself and his loads of turf. The potheen always arrived at its destination. Didn’t he even arrange a great funeral one time and got enough through to drunken the whole of the County Galway? Oh, he was a hero. Even when the English police went and the Irish ones came, he made hares of them, and to us in those days anybody who could do that to the police was the knees of the bees. He was the ultimate. Anyhow, what I want to be understood is that he was a hero to us all. So what do we do?

I say: “I’m sorry, King,” I say. “Honest to God I didn’t know it was you.”

“Here,” says Daneen holding out the stolen sally rod. “Have it back, King.”

“I’ll give you mine too,”says Jojo, a little reluctantly.

“Give’s a sup a potheen,” says Daneen, very forward.

He laughs then, the King does, holding the oul ass by the reins. “Off with ye, ye scoundrels,” he says. “Away with ye, ye poor misshapen city garsuns. Keep the oul bits of sticks and bedammed to ye.”

That’s all he said to us. Just that and he jumped up on the cart and drove away and we stood there looking after him admiringly. Once he turned and waved the whip at us, jollily, his white teeth shining.

“Jayney mac, isn’t he great?” Daneen asked.

“That’s really him?” I wanted to know.

“The very man,” said Jojo.

We broke four electric light bulbs and my oul fella bet me.

2

THE second time was a bit different. We were much older. We wore long trousers with good creases in them and we had oil in our hair, different smells on each so that if you passed us by you would think you were meeting a flower garden. We were sitting on the worn stones of the big town bridge trying to click with a few girls that might be passing out to Salthill. There was little doing. Probably because even though we were highly decorated we didn’t look very prosperous. One look the lassies would give us that said plainly, Hair Oil and Happence, and off they passed us by, looking for better game, so that we were forced to shout insults after them.

“To hell with this,” says Daneen then. “We’ll go down and see an American wake. I’m goin’ to be a celebis anyhow. I hate girls. Yah, yah, yah, they’d talk the leg offa pot, so they would.”

“And spend pounds on you as well,” said Jojo, who never saw a raw pound in his life that wasn’t broken down into coppers and bobs.

I agreed. I liked American wakes. The big ships came to our bay at this time and all the young country people were going to America on them and it would make a cat laugh to see and hear all the wailing and caterwauling that went on down there.

We had a little difficulty in getting onto the dock where the tender was. The gatekeeper was a crusty old bird with a beard and a sailor suit and he wouldn’t let his own mother past the gate’ unless she was legitimate. We had to use a subterfuge. A simple one that had worked before. A woman going in with a big crowd and showing the passes, so Jojo catches her shawl and Daneen catches Jojo’s coat and then holds me by the hand and we cover our eyes with our arms and start bawling crying as if our hearts were going to break. We nearly brought concrete tears to the hard oul eyes of the gateman as we passed through.

The tender was about to pull away. It. was packed with the emigrants. All clustered up at the back. A forest of handkerchiefs waving and red eyes all over the place. The shawled women on the quayside with their arms stretched out and the shawls trailing from their shoulders and the real tears pouring down their faces. The bainin men with the ashplants too, rubbing their noses with their lingers, choking it all back. It was a bit moving in a way if you let yourself become affected. So we didn’t. We aped them a bit, and it would make you curl up to see Daneen with his arms held out and his face screwed up.

The tender hooted and spurted water and men threw off the ropes and she started to pull away from the quay.

It was then we saw the King.

He was standing with his arms spread out like Christ on the cross and he was crying. We hardly recognized him. He was old. His mustache was white even, and he had a red nose and he seemed to have withered a little. We weren’t particularly keen on him now. Just a pleasant memory that we plucked up from the past.

“Why, that’s the old King,” said Daneen.

“As true as God it is,” said Jojo.

We watched him.

He was a king in a way. He was kingly in that he saw his son going away on that tender and it was breaking his heart and he felt like crying aloud, so he cried and he didn’t give a damn who saw him. He addressed his son too, in loving language. In Irish. We now knew some Irish. It had been forcibly impelled on us at school, the hard way. I knew what he was saying. He was saying: —

“My jewel of a son, do not leave me! Do not leave your poor old father. I have nobody in the world now but you and my breast will be aching when you are gone. I will be left like a wren in an empty nest. Come back to me, my little white son, come back to me, do not leave me alone. My live eyes will never see you again. Let you leap the distance now between the big ship and the earth and come again to the weary arms of your faithful father.”

That’s what he said. Between sobs and groans and the streaming tears. I saw his red-eyed son on the ship, looking so miserable with the cardboard suitcase at his feet. Big like his father had been. Out of place in his clothes and his shifting discomfort.

The boat pulled away and the son’s hands tightened on the rail and from the ship and the quay there arose a crying like hundreds of curlews. We weren’t jeering any longer somehow. We were quiet. You felt that there was a lot of real sorrow. The ship pulled away, the water churned into white porridge by the propellers, and when it was ten feet from the wall the King leaped after it with his hands outstretched.

He didn’t reach it.

He fell into the white foam.

I saw the staring eyes of his son and I saw the life buoy thrown by one of the dockmen and I saw another man with his coat off, diving into the water. I saw the King coming to the surface, still wearing his cap with the peak down over his face. It was easy to see that he could not swim. He didn’t care. He waved his hand at the departing ship before he went down again. Then the swimming man reached him and threw the life buoy over him.

The others waited to see him taken out dripping. There was a lot of laughing, they tell me. It was great gas, they tell me. I didn’t wait. I still remembered the King as he was, the fine strong man. I didn’t want to hear them laughing.

The third time I saw him was the next afternoon. I was on the far side of the docks, watching the green water. The sea gulls were wheeling. The water of the docks was slicked with oil from the ships and the coal dust of the stilled carts. You could see orange peelings in the water and floating cigarette packets and an odd drowned dog. It wasn’t very clean water. No dock water ever is. The thought of diving into it even on a hot day would repel you.

I saw the men in the rowing boat out in the middle of the docks pulling the grapple behind them. I saw it catch on something, strain, and I saw the men who were using the grappling hooks shout back over their shoulders. The oars were stilled and I saw the wet rope of the grapple come into the boat and then I saw the face of the King rising out of the water. For a moment he faced me, with his closed eyes. He had lost his cap and you could see his forehead was white where the sun never saw it for the cap. His hair was very gray and very scanty. I thought his face was very small, and high up on his white forehead there was a light blue mark.

The men rowed slowly towards the steps, the steps with the green slime on them. The grapple man held the coat of the King and hauled him after the boat. His head fell forward and it made a special wake of its own in the slimy water.

Someone had heard him splashing in. Late last night.

He must have come down to say a phantom farewell to a lost son. He must have. And he must have slipped and hit his head on the granite of the quay and he must have slipped in then. The quay was the last place that held the sight of his beloved son. So he had come again. He must have fallen in. He may have taken a few jars to dull the agony of his separation. He might have staggered. Anything like that might have happened. After all he was old, wasn’t he? He wasn’t the tall rangy man that had defied the police of two countries, for the love of it I would say. So he died like that. Pathetic you say.

I don’t know.

Poetic I’d say, who had seen it all.

The King is dead, and there’ll be no other. Not again. There could have been only one and he had no son to bear the crown.

I went home when they reached the steps and my head was down.