Author: Sharp, William, 1855-1905
Brittany (France) — Fiction
Hebrides (Scotland) — Fiction
Green Fire: A Romance
“While still I may, I write for you The love I lived, the dream I knew”
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1896, by Harper & Brothers.
All rights reserved.
“Nec sine te nec tecum vivere possum.“—Ovid
“There are those of us who would rather be with Cathal of the Woods, and be drunken with green fire, than gain the paradise of the holy Molios who banned him, if in that gain were to be heard no more the earth-sweet ancient song of the blood that is in the veins of youth….
“O green fire of life, pulse of the world! O Love, O Youth, O Dream of Dreams!
“The Annir Choille.”
The Birds of Angus Ogue
|II.||THE HOUSE OF KERIVAL||22|
|IV.||THE DREAM AND THE DREAMERS||53|
|V.||THE WALKER IN THE NIGHT||69|
|VII.||“DEIREADH GACH COGAIDH, SITH”|
|(THE END OF ALL WARFARE, PEACE)||114|
|VIII.||THE UNFOLDING OF THE SCROLL||125|
|IX.||RETROSPECTIVE: FROM THE HEBRID ISLES||149|
|X.||AT THE EDGE OF THE SHADOW||175|
|XII.||IN THE GREEN ARCADES||208|
|XIV.||THE LAUGHTER OF THE KING||239|
|XV.||THE BEAUTY OF THE WORLD||259|
THE BIRDS OF ANGUS OGUE
Hither and thither,
And to and fro,
They thrid the Maze
Of Weal and Woe:
O winds that blow
For golden weather
Blow me the birds,
All white as snow
On the hillside heather—
Blow me the birds
That Angus know:
Blow me the birds,
Be it Weal or Woe!
Then, in the violet forest, all a-bourgeon, Eucharis said to me: “It is Spring.”—Arthur Rimbaud.
After the dim purple bloom of a suspended spring, a green rhythm ran from larch to thorn, from lime to sycamore; spread from meadow to meadow, from copse to copse, from hedgerow to hedgerow. The blackthorn had already snowed upon the nettle-garths. In the obvious nests among the bare boughs of ash and beech the eggs of the blackbird were blue-green as the sky that March had bequeathed to April. For days past, when the breath of the equinox had surged out of the west, the missel-thrushes had bugled from the wind-swayed topmost branches of the tallest elms. Everywhere the green rhythm ran.
In every leaf that had uncurled there was a delicate bloom, that which is upon all things in the first hours of life. The spires of the grass were washed in a green, dewy light. Out of the brown earth a myriad living things thrust tiny green shafts, arrow-heads, bulbs, spheres, clusters. Along the pregnant soil keener ears than ours would have heard the stir of new life, the innumerous whisper of the bursting seed; and, in the wind itself, shepherding the shadow-chased sunbeams, the voice of that vernal gladness which has been man’s clarion since Time began.
Day by day the wind-wings lifted a more multitudinous whisper from the woodlands. The deep hyperborean note, from the invisible ocean of air, was still audible: within the concourse of bare boughs which lifted against it, that surging voice could not but have an echo of its wintry roar. In the sun-havens, however, along the southerly copses, in daisied garths of orchard-trees, amid the flowering currant and guelder and lilac bushes in quiet places where the hives were all a-murmur, the wind already sang its lilt of spring. From dawn till noon, from an hour before sundown till the breaking foam along the wild cherry flushed fugitively because of the crimson glow out of the west, there was a ceaseless chittering of birds. The starlings and the sparrows enjoyed the commune of the homestead; the larks and fieldfares and green and yellow linnets congregated in the meadows, where, too, the wild bee already roved. Among the brown ridgy fallows there was a constant flutter of black, white-gleaming, and silver-gray wings, where the stalking rooks, the jerking pewets, and the wary, uncertain gulls from the neighboring sea, feasted tirelessly from the teeming earth. Often, too, the wind-hover, that harbinger of the season of the young broods, quivered his curved wings in his arrested flight, while his lance-like gaze penetrated the whins, beneath which a new-born rabbit crawled, or discerned in the tangle of a grassy tuft the brown, watchful eyes of a nesting quail.
In the remoter woodlands the three foresters of April could be heard: the woodpecker tapping on the gnarled boles of the oaks; the wild-dove calling in low, crooning monotones to his silent mate; the cuckoo tolling his infrequent peals from skyey belfries built of sun and mist.
In the fields, where the thorns were green as rivulets of melted snow and the grass had the bloom of emerald, and the leaves of docken, clover, cinquefoil, sorrel, and a thousand plants and flowers, were wave-green, the ewes lay, idly watching with their luminous amber eyes the frisking and leaping of the close-curled, tuft-tailed, woolly-legged lambs. In corners of the hedgerows, and in hollows in the rolling meadows, the primrose, the celandine, the buttercup, the dandelion, and the daffodil spilled little eddies of the sun-flood which overbrimmed them with light. All day long the rapture of the larks filled the blue air with vanishing spirals of music, swift and passionate in the ascent, repetitive and less piercing in the narrowing downward gyres. From every whin the poignant, monotonous note of the yellow-hammer reëchoed. Each pastoral hedge was alive with robins, chaffinches, and the dusky shadows of the wild-mice darting here and there among the greening boughs.
Whenever this green fire is come upon the earth, the swift contagion spreads to the human heart. What the seedlings feel in the brown mould, what the sap feels in the trees, what the blood feels in every creature from the newt in the pool to the nesting bird—so feels the strange, remembering ichor that runs its red tides through human hearts and brains. Spring has its subtler magic for us, because of the dim mysteries of unremembering remembrance and of the vague radiances of hope. Something in us sings an ascendant song, and we expect, we know not what; something in us sings a decrescent song, and we realize vaguely the stirring of immemorial memories.
There is none who will admit that spring is fairer elsewhere than in his own land. But there are regions where the season is so hauntingly beautiful that it would seem as though Angus Ogue knew them for his chosen resting-places in his green journey.
Angus Og, Angus MacGreine, Angus the Ever Youthful, the Son of the Sun, a fair god he indeed, golden-haired and wonderful as Apollo Chrusokomes. Some say that he is Love; some, that he is Spring; some, even, that in him, Thanatos, the Hellenic Celt that was his far-off kin, is reincarnate. But why seek riddles in flowing water? It may well be that Angus Ogue is Love, and Spring, and Death. The elemental gods are ever triune; and in the human heart, in whose lost Eden an ancient tree of knowledge grows wherefrom the mind has not yet gathered more than a few windfalls, it is surely sooth that Death and Love are oftentimes one and the same, and that they love to come to us in the apparel of Spring.
Sure, indeed, Angus Ogue is a name above all sweet to lovers, for is he not the god—the fair youth of the Tuatha-de-Danann, the Ancient People, with us still, though for ages seen of us no more—from the meeting of whose lips are born white birds, which fly abroad and nest in lovers’ hearts till the moment come when, on the yearning lips of love, their invisible wings shall become kisses again?
Then, too, there is the old legend that Angus goes to and fro upon the world, a weaver of rainbows. He follows the spring, or is its herald. Often his rainbows are seen in the heavens; often in the rapt gaze of love. We have all perceived them in the eyes of children, and some of us have discerned them in the hearts of sorrowful women and in the dim brains of the old. Ah! for sure, if Angus Og be the lovely Weaver of Hope he is deathless comrade of the spring, and we may well pray to him to let his green fire move in our veins, whether he be but the Eternal Youth of the World, or be also Love, whose soul is youth, or even though he be likewise Death himself, Death to whom Love was wedded long, long ago.
But nowhere was spring more lovely, nowhere was the green fire of life so quick with impulsive ardors, as, one year of the years, in a seaward region to the north of the ancient forest of Broceliande, in what of old was Armorica and now is Brittany.
Here spring often comes late, but ever lingers long. Here, too, in the dim green avenues of the oak-woods of Kerival, the nightingales reach their uttermost western flight. Never has the shepherd, tending his scant flock on the upland pastures of Finistère, nor the fisherman lying a-dream amid the sandy thickets of Ushant, heard that quaint music—that primeval and ever young song of the passionate heart which Augustine might well have had in mind when he exclaimed “Sero te amavi, Pulchritudo, tam antiqua et tam nova, sero te amavi.” But, each April, in the woods of Kerival, the nightingales congregate from afar, and through May their songs make the forest like a sanctuary filled with choristers swinging incense of a delicate music.
It is a wonderful region, that which lies betwixt Ploumaliou on the east and Kerloek on the west; the oldest, remotest part of an ancient, remote land. Here the few hamlets and fewer scattered villages are, even in externals, the same as they were a hundred or three hundred years ago. In essentials, there is no difference since St. Hervé or St. Ronan preached the new faith, or indeed since Ahès the Pale rode through the forest aisles in the moonlight and heard the Nains chanting, or since King Gradlon raced his horse against the foam when his daughter let the sea in upon the fair city of Ys. The good curés preach the religion of Christ and of Mary to the peasants; but in the minds of most of these there lingers much of the bygone faith that reared the menhirs. Few indeed there are in whose ears is never an echo of the old haunted world, when every wood and stream, every barren moor and granite wilderness, every sea-pasture and creek and bay had its particular presence, its spirit of good or ill, its menace, its perilous enchantment. The eyes of the peasants by these shores, these moors, these windy hill-slopes of the south, are not fixed only on the meal-chest and the fallow-field, or, on fête-days, upon the crucifix in the little church; but often dwell upon a past time, more sacred now than ever in this bitter relinquishing age. On the lips of many may be heard lines from that sad folk-song, “Ann Amzer Dremenet” (In the Long Ago):
Eur c’havel kaer karn olifant,
War-n-han tachou aour hag arc’ hant.
Daelou a ver, daelou c’houero:
Neb a zo enn han zo maro!
Zo maro, zo maro pell-zo,
Hag hi luskel, o kana ‘to,
Hag hi luskel, luskel ato,
Kollet ar skiand-vad gant-ho.
Ar skiand-vad ho deuz kollet;
Kollet ho deuz joaiou ar bed.
[But when they had made the cradle
Of ivory and of gold,
Their hearts were heavy still
With the sorrow of old.
And ever as they rocked, the tears
Ran down, sad tears:
Who is it lieth dead therein,
Dead all these weary years?
And still they rock that cradle there
Of ivory and gold;
For in their brains the shadow is
The Shadow of Old.
They weep, and know not what they weep;
They wait a vain rebirth:
Vanity of vanities, alas!
For there is but one birth
On the wide, green earth.]
Old sayings they have, too; who knows how old? The charcoal-burner in the woods above Kerloek will still shudder at the thought of death on the bleak, open moor, because of the carrion-crow that awaits his sightless eyes, the fox that will tear his heart out, and the toad that will swallow his soul. Long, long ago Gwenc’hlan the Bard sang thus of his foe and the foes of his people, when every battle field was a pasture for the birds and beasts of prey, and when the Spirit of Evil lurked near every corpse in the guise of a toad. And still the shrimper, in the sands beyond Ploumaliou, will cry out against the predatory sea fowl A gas ar Gall—a gas ar Gall! (Chase the Franks!) and not know that, ages ago, this cry went up from the greatest of Breton kings, when Nomenoë drove the Frankish invaders beyond the Oust and the Vilaine, and lighted their flight by the flames of Nantes and Rennes.
Near the northern frontier of the remotest part of this ancient region, the Manor of Kerival was the light-house of its forest vicinage. It was and is surrounded by woods, for the most part of oak and chestnut and beech. Therein are trees of an age so great that they may have sheltered the flight of Jud Mael, when Ahès chased him on her white stallion from glade to glade, and one so venerably old that its roots may have been soaked in the blood of their child Judik, whom she forced her betrayer to slay with the sword before she thrust a dagger into his heart. Northward of the manor, however, the forest is wholly of melancholy spruce, of larch and pine. The pines extend in a desolate disarray to the interminable dunes, beyond which the Breton sea lifts its gray wave against a gray horizon. On that shore there are few rocks, though here and there fang-like reefs rise, ready to tear and devour any boat hurled upon them at full tide in days of storm. At Kerival Haven, too, there is a wilderness of granite rock; a mass of pinnacles, buttresses, and inchoate confusion, ending in long, smooth ledges of black basalt, these forever washed by the green flow of the tides.
None of the peasants knew the age of the House of Kerival, or how long the Kerival family had been there. Old Yann Hénan, the blind brother of the white-haired curé, Père Alain, who was the oldest man in all the countryside, was wont to say that Kerival woods had been green before ever there was a house on the banks of the Seine, and that a Kerival had been lord of the land before ever there was a king of France. All believed this, except Père Alain, and even he dissented only when Yann spoke of the seigneur’s ancestor as the Marquis of Kerival; for, as he explained, there were no marquises in those far-off days. But this went for nothing; for, unfortunately, Père Alain had once in his youth preached against the popular belief in Korrigans and Nains, and had said that these supernatural beings did not exist, or at any rate were never seen of man. How, then, could much credence be placed on the testimony of a man who could be so prejudiced? Yann had but to sing a familiar snatch from the old ballad of “Aotru Nann Hag ar Gorrigan”—the fragment beginning
Ken a gavas eur waz vihan
E-kichen ti eur Gorrigan,
Met gwell eo d’in mervel breman
‘Get dimizi d’ eur Gorrigan!—
[The Lord Nann came to the Kelpie’s Pool
And stooped to drink the water cool;
But he saw the kelpie sitting by,
Combing her long locks listlessly.
“O knight,” she sang, “thou dost not fear
To draw these perilous waters near!
Wed thou me now, or on a stone
For seven years perish all alone,
Or three days hence moan your death-moan!”
“I will not wed you, nor alone
Perish with torment on a stone,
Nor three days hence draw my death-moan—
For I shall die, O Kelpie fair,
When God lets down the golden stair,
And so my soul thou shalt not share—
But, if my fate is to lie dead,
Here, with thy cold breast for my bed,
Death can be mine, I will not wed!”]
When Yann sang this, or told for the hundredth time the familiar story of how Paskou-Hir the tailor was treated by the Nains when he sought to rifle the hidden treasure in the grotto, every one knew that he spoke what was authentic, what was true. As for Père Alain—well, priests are told to say many things by the good, wise Holy Father, who rules the world so well but has never been in Brittany, and so cannot know all that happens there, and has happened from time immemorial. Then, again, was there not the evidence of the alien, the strange, quiet man called Yann the Dumb, because of his silence at most times—him that was the servitor-in-chief to the Lady Lois, the beautiful paralyzed wife of the Marquis of Kerival, and that came from the far north, where the kindred of the Armorican race dwell among the misty isles and rainy hills of Scotland? Indeed Yann had been heard to say that he would sooner disbelieve in the Pope himself than in the kelpie, for in his own land he had himself heard her devilish music luring him across a lonely moor, and he had known a man who had gone fey because he had seen the face of a kelpie in a hill-tarn.
In the time of the greening, even the Korrigans are unseen of walkers in the dusk. They are busy then, some say, winding the white into the green bulbs of the water-lilies, or tinting the wings within the chrysalis of the water-fly, or weaving the bright skins for the newts; but however this may be, the season of the green flo