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The Old King Comes Back

Irish folktale

When Mrs. O'Brien and Kathleen left home they walked through the Park and to the Sullivans'. Peter was away. Terence half sat and half lay on the floor in a corner. He held his right hand behind him and covered his face with his left arm. His whole body shook as if he were riding in a cart over a rough road. Ellen sat close to him, trying to soothe him and trying to get him to tell her what was the matter.

When Mrs. O'Brien and Kathleen came in Terence seemed to try to make himself smaller, but he did nothing else. "Ellen," said Mrs. O'Brien, "come outside the room here for a moment; I have something to tell you."

"Look at Terence there," Ellen answered; "how can I leave him when he's that way?"

"Leave him," said Mrs. O'Brien, "and come out here with me."

She took Ellen by the hand and led her, and Ellen followed. There was something in Mrs. O'Brien's look now that told her she would have to come. "Now look at me," said Mrs. O'Brien, when they were out of the room; "do I look as if I would mean every word I said, or do I not?"

Ellen did not answer, and Mrs. O'Brien said: "Ellen, when it was only your own affair I told you what you ought to do, but I let you take your own way. But now it is Kathleen's affair and John's and mine, and it is time that I had my way. Look at me, Ellen, and tell me, do I look as if I meant to have it?"

Again Ellen looked in the old woman's face and said nothing for an instant. Then she looked down again in a confused way, and said: "I must go back to Terence."

"Ellen," said the old woman, "go down to the kitchen. We'll follow you, and Terence can come, too, if he likes, and I think he will."

Without a word Ellen went down the stairs. Mrs. O'Brien called to Terence: "We are going to the kitchen; you can come if you like."

Mrs. O'Brien and Kathleen followed Ellen, and Terence followed them. He slipped down the stairs like a bundle of rags. He stole into the kitchen after the others and half sat and half lay in the corner, as he had done in the room above, only he did not cover his face with his arm, but kept his eyes on Mrs. O'Brien to see what she was going to do.

"Now, Ellen," Mrs. O'Brien whispered, "put your largest pot on the fire, put water in it, and let it boil."

Ellen looked at the old woman as if she were begging her not to do this. The old woman looked back at her, and then she did it. She put the pot on the fire and the water in the pot. "Now bring all the eggs you have in the house," Mrs. O'Brien said.

Ellen was past asking questions now, and she brought the eggs. It always takes a long time for water to boil, and it seemed to all of them as if it took hours for this water to boil. While they were waiting not one of them spoke and they scarcely moved. Terence was all but holding his breath, and his eyes, red and staring, were now upon Mrs. O'Brien and now upon Ellen, and never at rest. Kathleen looked at Terence and clutched the little crucifix in her hand. But she need not have been afraid of Terence; he knew the crucifix as well as he cared to know it.

After a long time the water boiled. Mrs. O'Brien waited till it was boiling as hard as ever it could, and then she whispered to Ellen: "Break the eggs now; keep the shells and throw away the rest."

Poor Ellen could not guess what it all meant, but she broke the eggs, laid the shells carefully aside, and threw away the rest.

"Now," said Mrs. O'Brien, "put the shells in the pot."

Ellen did as she was told.

"What are you doing, mother?" Terence called from his corner.

"Tell him you are brewing," Mrs. O'Brien whispered.

"I'm brewing, Terence," said Ellen, scarcely loud enough to be heard.

"And what are you brewing?" Terence asked again.

"Say egg-shells," Mrs. O'Brien whispered.

"Egg-shells, Terence," Ellen said.

Terence sprang to his feet. "Egg-shells!" he cried. "For near six thousand years I have lived on this earth, and never till this minute did I see anybody brew egg-shells!"

Mrs. O'Brien had turned upon him before he had done speaking. "Six thousand years, is it, that you've been on this earth?" she cried. "Then go and spend the rest of the years where you spent the six thousand! You've been long enough here! And send back the child that was stolen when you came here!"

Terence sprang toward a window. Ellen stood in his way; he struck her in the face with his open hand and threw her on the floor. After that nobody saw him but Kathleen. She saw him go toward the window. It was open just a little crack. Before her very eyes he grew smaller and smaller, till he scrambled and rolled and slipped through the crack and was gone.

That very instant the door opened and the Hill Terence came in. He saw Ellen lying on the floor, and, without noticing anyone else, he went to her and lifted her up. Ellen looked in his face, started back from him for an instant, still gazing in his face, and then caught him in her arms and cried, with her voice all full of tears, "It's my own boy—my own boy—the one I always saw in my dreams! Don't come near me, any of you, or you'll wake me and it'll be another dream! Oh, let me keep this dream while I can!"

"You'll keep this dream always, Ellen, dear," the old woman said. "Have no more fear. This is the dream that's for all your life and forever."

It was about that time, or it may have been a little later, that Peter came in. They told him all about it as well as they could. "It's glad I am that it all came out so," Peter said, after they had completely bewildered him by trying to make him understand the story; "it's glad I am. And yet I did like to hear Terence play the fiddle."

"I can play the fiddle a little too," the new Terence said.

"Oh, yes, indeed he can!" said Kathleen. "Bring the fiddle and he will show you."

Peter brought the fiddle and Terence played, and the fiddle sang a great song of gladness—the song of a soul born to find itself a full man all at once.

"Ah! don't you see now? Don't you see now?" Kathleen cried. "That means something!"

The fairies in the hill were dancing their endless dance, when Naggeneen, as if he had been lifted up in the air and dropped, was suddenly among them. They stopped the dance and gathered around him. "What for are you back here?" the King asked.

"They drove me out!" Naggeneen cried. "I knew they would! I told you they would! I told you you could do nothing and I could do nothing! It's the only wonder that they didn't drive me out long ago."

"What do you keep your hand behind you for?" the King asked.

"I couldn't tell you that," said Naggeneen; "I couldn't say the words that I'ld have to say to tell you."

"And how did they drive you out?"

"By brewing egg-shells."

"And do you mean," the King cried, "that you let them catch you with that old trick? I thought you was clever."

"Let them catch me! I couldn't help what they did! I tried to help it, but it's a spell that's too strong for me or for any of us. If I was to get a soul by it, I couldn't help saying: 'What are you doing, mother?' and then I couldn't help saying how long I had been on the earth. Ah, didn't I always tell you mortals was more powerful than us, if they only knew how? What are our spells and our charms to theirs?"

"And where is Terence, then?" the King asked.

"He's not come in yet," somebody answered.

"You know where he must be by this time," said Naggeneen. "He's back with his father and his mother by now. Where else could he be?"

"There'll be no geometry to-night," the King said. "It's all done; we've failed in that. We'll always be as we are, as you told us, Naggeneen. So now be as you were yourself and give us a tune to dance by. We was dancing when you came in, but it was no good music we had."

"I'll not play any more," Naggeneen said; "that's all done too. But I have something more to tell you. Kathleen O'Brien can see us, whether we like it or not. Some fool of you must have given her the ointment when she was here, and now she has used it on her eyes. She saw me when I meant to be invisible, and by the same token she can see any of you any time, whether you want to be seen or not. Now you know it's the rule that she must be blinded in some way. Any of you can do it that likes. I've had enough and I warn you. She carries something that none of you can face, if she uses it. But you can watch your chance and do it when she's asleep or in some way off her guard."

An angry murmur ran around when Naggeneen said this. The King was about to speak, but the Queen spoke first. "Never a one of you shall harm her," she said. "Look what she did for me and the little Prince, at that time when we can do nothing for ourselves. And how good her grandmother has always been to us; and her mother, when she was alive. I don't care if she sees everything we do; no one of us shall ever harm her or anyone that belongs to her."

"You are right," the King said, "and it's ordered as you say."

"And she's not to be blinded, then?" said Naggeneen.

"She's not to be harmed," the King answered. "I forbid you ever to touch her, Naggeneen, and none of us ever will."

"Don't fear for me," said Naggeneen. "I'll never go near her. I've had enough."

"And we've all had enough," said the King; "so now, Naggeneen, play for us."

"Leave me be," said Naggeneen; "I'll never play for you again. King, did you ever lose what you cared for more than all the world? When you do, you'll know more than you know now, with all your age and with all your power. I told you once how I carried off the Princess of France and how Guleesh na Guss Dhu stole her from me. I cared nothing for her. It was only the soul that I'ld get from her that I wanted. And this time it was only the soul that I wanted, too, at first, but I loved this one in the end. But a soul will always find out another soul, and there's nothing for one like us, that has no soul. Oh, I couldn't even tell her like a man. All I could do was to be always frightening her and threatening her, and I knew all the time that it would drive her away from me at last, or me away from her. And I'll be like the rest of you till the Last Day, and then it's not even a little smoke that there'll be left of us. Dance and play and do what you like, but leave me be."

Naggeneen turned away from the King, pushed his way through the crowd, and threw himself down in a corner of the hall, with his face against the wall. The rest did not dance any more that night. Naggeneen had frightened them, as he always frightened them when he chose.

After that for a time everything went with the fairies as it had gone at first, except that Naggeneen was not among them. Sometimes he was in the hall by himself and sometimes he was out of it by himself, but he never danced with the others, he never talked with them, and he never played for them.

One day the King came to him as he sat in his corner alone and said, "Naggeneen, we are all going to the wedding. Will you come with us?"

"Leave me be," said Naggeneen. "Why would I want to see it? I don't know if I'll ever go with you or do anything with you again, or with anyone, but I know I'll not now."

All the people who were passing St. Patrick's Cathedral could tell by the looks of things that if they waited long enough they would see somebody come out. So a good many waited. After a while they saw Terence and Kathleen come out and get into a carriage.

"Look," said Kathleen: "do you see them? They are the Good People! Don't you see them all around us, in the street and in the air, and everywhere? I remember every one of them—the funny little men and the pretty little girls. Oh, you goose, you have lived with them all your life, and still you can't see them except when they want you to. But my eyes are different, and I can see them always. Here is one of them coming close to the carriage. It is the King. Yes, Your Majesty. What do you think he says, Terence? He says that they are never going to try to put my eyes out and are never going to do me any harm at all, and that I am never to be afraid of them."

Presently the people who were waiting outside the Cathedral saw John O'Brien and his mother come out and get into another carriage. "Shaun," said the old woman, "I'm wishing that poor Kitty—Heaven rest her soul!—could be here to-day."

"I was thinking that same, mother," said John.

"I think she sees it all," said his mother.

"I think so," said John.

"Shaun," said the old woman again, "isn't it all as well as it could be? Isn't my old King back with us, and isn't it the luck of O'Donoghue that we've found again?"

Fairies and Folk of Ireland

Myths and Folk Tales of Ireland

: Contains 11 Irish folktales.

Author: William Henry Frost
Published: 1900
Publisher: Charles Scribner's sons, New York

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