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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull


 

 

THE SLEEP-WANDERER

[208] ON a wild wintry night while things were so, there came into the neighbourhood a hunter of wandering game, who had lost his course and his companions. The man was tired with travelling among the hills all day, and in the dark cloudy night, with the mist rising round him from the hills, he laid him down outside the garden within which Deirdre dwelt, and fell asleep. Weak he was with hunger and fatigue, and numb with cold, and deep sleep fell upon the man. Sleep-wandering came upon him then, and he thought that he was close beside a warm hollowed-out fairy mound, and in his dreams he heard fairy music, soft and sweet. In his sleep he called aloud that if there were any one at all in the fairy mound, they would open the mound and let him in, for the sake of the Good Being.

Now Deirdre had not slept that night, and she had arisen and with her nurse had moved about the grounds to seek for warmth of exercise. Just as they turned to go back within the house out of the chill and heavy mist, Deirdre heard the faint feeble voice of the weary man outside the gate. "Nurse-mother, what is that?" she asked and stopped. Levarcam knew it was a human voice, but she replied, "Only a thing of little worth, the birds of the air have gone astray, and are seeking one [209] another; let them hie away to the forest of branches"; and she tried to draw Deirdre towards the house. Again sleep-wandering came on the man, and he called out again and louder than before, that if there were any in the fairy mound, for the sake of the Being of the Elements they would arise and let him in.

"What is that, nurse-mother?" said the girl again. "Only a thing of little sense, the birds of the woods are gone astray from each other, and are seeking to come together again. Let them hie away to the forest of branches."

The third time came sleep-wandering upon the hunter, and he called aloud that if there were any within the mound, they would let him in for the sake of the God of the Elements, for he was benumbed with cold and parched with hunger.

"Oh! what is that, nurse-mother?" said Deirdre. "Nought there is in that to bring gladness to thee, maiden; it is but the birds of the air who have lost one another in the woods; let them hie away into the forest of branches. Neither shelter or home with they get from us this night." "Oh! nurse-mother, it was in the name of the God of the Elements that the bird asked shelter of us; and oft hast thou told me that anything asked of us in His name should willingly be done. If thou wilt not allow me to bring in the bird that is benumbed with cold and sore with hunger, I myself will doubt thy teaching and thy faith. But as I believe in thy teaching and thy faith, as thou thyself didst explain it to me, I myself will let in the bird." So Deirdre turned back to the gate and drew the bar from the door, and let in the hunter. She brought him into the house, and placed a seat in the place of sitting, food in the place of eating, [210] and drink in the place of drinking, for the man who had come home.

"Go on and eat thy food, for indeed thou art in need of it," said Deirdre.

"Well, I was in truth needful of food and drink and of warmth when I came to the door of this home," said the hunter, "but these are all gone from me now that I behold thee, maiden." Then Levarcam was angry with the man, and spoke sharply to him: "It is too ready on thy tongue the talk is, O man, with thy food and with thy drink. It would be better for thee to keep thy mouth shut and thy tongue dumb in return for the shelter we are giving thee on a cold winter's night."

"Well," said the hunter, "I may keep my mouth shut and my tongue dumb if it suits thee, but by thy father's two hands and thy own, there are some others of the world's men who, if they but saw this blood-drop thou art hiding here, it is not long that they would leave her here with thee."

"What people are those and where are they?" said Deirdre, eagerly. "I will tell thee that, maiden," said the hunter. "There are three heroes of the Red Branch, Naisi, Ainle, and Arden, sons of Usna, brothers, who, if they saw thee, would bear thee hence to some other place than this."

"What like are these three brothers of whom you speak?" cried Deirdre, and all her face blushed to a rosy red. "Like the colour of a raven their dusky hair, tossed back from each high, shining brow; their skin white as the plumage of a swan, their cheeks like to a red-deer's coat, or like your own cheeks, maiden. They swim and leap and run as strong and stately as the [211] salmon of the stream, or as the stag upon the dappled hill, 'twixt sun and shade; but Naisi, when he stands upright, towers a head and shoulders above all the men around him. Such are the sons of Usna, noble maid."

But Levarcam interfered: "However be those men of whom you speak, off with you now and take another road that comes not past this way. Small is my gratitude for all thy talk, and well for her who let thee in hadst thou died of thy cold and hunger at the door, and never come within for food and drink."

The hunter went his way; but he bethought himself that if he told the sons of Usna of the lovely blood-drop he had seen, they might free the maiden out of Levarcam's hands, and do a good deed to him also for telling them that there was such a damsel as Deirdre on the surface of the living dewy world. So he told his tale to Naisi and said to him that there dwelt, far away on the distant moor, shut in between high walls, the loveliest maiden that ever was born in Erin, and that none lived beside her but an aged nurse and an old Druid, so that Deirdre was like a tender flower over-shadowed by two ancient branchy trees, that hid her from the air and sun.

When Naisi heard that, he said, "Who is the maid and where is she, whom no man hath seen but thee, if, indeed, seen her thou hast?" "Truly I have seen her," said the hunter, "but no one else could find her save I myself should guide him."

Then Naisi said that he would go; but Arden and Ainle tried to dissuade him, for they said, "What if the girl should be the maid the King hath destined for himself?" But from far-off to the mind of Naisi there came a memory of a young child, scarce seven years old, [212] whom on the playing-fields he once had seen and promised to see again, but who had disappeared that very day, and never from that day to this had he set eyes upon the girl. So all his brothers could devise served not to turn him from his purpose; and at dawn of the next day, amid the early carolling of birds, in the mild morning dawn of fragrant May, when all the bush was white with hawthorn-bloom, and dew-drops glistened from every point of sapling, bush, and plant, they four set out, going in search of the retired place where Deirdre dwelt.

"Yonder it is, down on the floor of the glen," the hunter said, when at the fall of eve they stood upon the mountain-brow above the house, so well concealed in trees that many times they might have passed it by and never known that any house was near. "I care not for myself to see again the woman who lives therein; sharp is her tongue, unwelcoming her words. I leave you then, good luck go with you, but if you will be advised, go not near the house. At every gate are blood-hounds, and Levarcam's bite is nigh as fierce as theirs."

From day to day the sons of Usna stayed among the hills that circled Deirdre's home. But for awhile Levarcam feared to let her charge go out, for soon would Conor come to claim her, and Levarcam thought, "If aught should happen or the girl should slip between my hands, small pity would King Conor have for me." But as time passed, and Deirdre pined again for open air and sunshine, and the walks she loved, and fretted for the fox that looked for her, and for her woodland company of beasts and birds, Levarcam once again took the girl abroad, and oft they sat upon the open hill and watched the sun go down, or brought their [213] work and passed the long spring mornings on the heather, happy because the sunshine was so warm, the air so sweet, and all the world so fresh with herbs and flowers.

One day they long had sat thus drinking in the sun, and while Levarcam dozed and nodded with the heat and the fatigue of climbing up the hill, Deirdre from time to time would leave her side to seek some plant or follow a butterfly that passed across her path. Reaching the summit of the hill she saw three men whose like she never in her life before had set her eyes upon. They were not bent, like Caffa, or wrinkled, like King Conor when he came; nor were they dark and roughly clad, with shaggy beards, like the one hunter who had made his way to her abode. These men were young and lithe, straight as the pine and shapely as the stag. But one above the rest towered head and shoulders high, his raven locks thrown back, his blue eye scanning all the mountain for trace of fawn or deer. Beside them, in the leash, three noble hounds; and as they paced along the upland track, Deirdre sat mute in wonder, for in all her life never had she seen such goodly men as these. But suddenly, as they drew near, a flash of inspiration came upon her mind; she knew that these were Usna's sons, that he who overtopped the rest was Naisi, the boy who long ago had thrown the ball with her. The brothers passed her by, not seeing her seated above them on the hill. But all at once, without a moment's thought, Deirdre sprang up, and gathering up her dress, she sped as swiftly as a roe along the mountain side, calling out, "Naisi, Naisi, wilt thou leave me here?" Now Naisi had rounded the bend of the hill, and he could not see the maiden, but Ainle and Arden saw her bounding after them, and no thought had they but to get Naisi [214] away, for they knew well that this was Deirdre, and that if Naisi once set eyes on her, nothing in life would prevent him from carrying her off, the more especially, since Conor was not yet married to the girl. So when Naisi asked, "What is that cry that came to mine ear that it is not easy for me to answer and yet not easy for me to refuse?" the brothers replied, "What but the quacking of the wild ducks upon the mere? Let us hasten our steps and hurry our feet, for long is the distance we have to traverse, and the dark hour of night is coming on." They went forward quickly, but when Deirdre saw that they were lengthening the space between themselves and her, she called again piteously, "Naisi, thou son of Usna, is it leaving me alone thou art?" "What cry is that which strikes into my very heart?" said Naisi. "Not easy is it for me to answer, but harder yet is it to refuse." "It is but the cry of the grey geese in the air, winging their flight to the nearest tarn," said the brothers again; "let us hasten now and walk well, for long is our path to-night and the darkness of night is coming on." They set out to walk faster than before, and farther yet was the distance between themselves and Deirdre. Then Deirdre flew with the swiftness of the winds of March across the bend of the mountain, and reached a place above them on the cliff, and called again the third time, "Naisi, Naisi, Naisi, thou son of Usna, wilt thou leave me here alone?" "The cry I hear strikes sweetly on mine ear, but of all cries I ever heard, this cry makes deepest wound within mine heart," said Naisi, and he stopped short.

"Heed not the cry," his brothers said, "it is the wail of the lake-swans, disturbed in their nesting-place; let us push on now, and win our way to-night to Emain [215] Macha." "Three times came that cry of distress to me," said Naisi, "and the vow of a champion is upon me, that no cry of distress shall be passed by unheeded. I will go back now and see whence comes that cry."

Then Naisi turned to go back, and on the hill above him he saw Deirdre, standing on a rock with her arms outstretched, and all her hair blown backward by the wind, and her fair face flushed all with red, part with her running, part with a lovely shame, and changing as the aspen shimmering in the summer's breeze. And Naisi knew that never in his life had he seen anything one-half so fair, or any blood, drop like the living blood-drop here, and he gave love to Deirdre such as he never gave to any other, or to a dream or vision, or to a person on the whole world's face, but only to Deirdre alone.

And Deirdre came close, and to him she gave three loving kisses, and to his brothers each a kiss; and Naisi lifted her and placed her on his shoulder, and he said, "Hitherto it is you, my brothers, who have bidden me to walk well, but now it is I who bid the same to you."

That night they carried Deirdre to their own home, and sheltered her there for many days. But the news reached Conor that Deirdre was flown, and that it was the sons of Usna with whom she went, and in his fury he sent out armies, and hunted them from place to place, so that they traversed all Ireland, fleeing before the King. And when they found there was no rest for them in Ireland, Naisi determined to forsake his native land and to flee to Alba, for there he had made wars and had carved out for himself a kingdom as great as the kingdom of Conor in Ulster. So he and Deirdre, with his brothers and a great band of followers fled to Alba, which is to-day called Scotland, and they made their home on Glen [216] Etive in Alba, and thence Naisi ruled over the territories he had taken from the King of Alba, and he made wars, and became a powerful prince. And joyous and gladsome were he and Deirdre in each other's company, and great was the love and affection they gave one to the other.


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