Dermot did not offer to take the fodder from her, though he thought he was in love with Niamh and had every intention of asking her to marry him. He believed that the women of this county were used to carrying heavy burdens and left her to it. But Ruari McFee, saying nothing to the girl, began to untie the rope at her waist, and he swiftly swung the mass lightly over his own shoulders.
“Sure, there’s no need to do that!” Dermot said, while he thought to himself, “You are a ‘buck eejit!” (stupid idiot!)
“It is too heavy for a lass,” replied Ruairi, but his eyes did not meet Niamh’s eyes and they walked home together in silence through the creeping dusk.
Inside the cottage and by the red glow from the turf fire Niamh looked lovelier to him than ever she had. McFee, meanwhile, ate little and his mind appeared to be was in another place. Catriona’s remarks, and Dermot’s slow efforts at conversation seemed to fall on strangely deaf ears. He was a shy man, quietly spoken and found it difficult to socialise with people who were virtual strangers to him. Ruairi appreciated all these personality faults and yet could not quite understand what had come over him that evening. He asked himself the question all the next day, because, even as he threw himself into inspecting his new byres and out-houses, there was only one image in his mind and that was a picture of slim girl in a short faded green skirt, who was lying against a grassy bank, with her small head crushed against a background of faded ferns, and her shy lovely eyes looking into his face. It was Niamh, but she was said to be a changeling. “Nonetheless,” he told himself, “changeling or not, I have fallen in love with her!”
“It is no use at all to go against the girl. I have said so before now. And there are many girls in the district who are as good a prospect as she is, and maybe they’ll have a cow or two, or even a few pounds to bring with them. There’s wee Sheila O’Donnell and she could have as much as three hundred pounds to bring to the marriage!”
“As if I would look at a woman with a squint,” snapped Dermot as he furiously threw down the fishing-rod he was holding, “I will have none but Niamh, and if she will not have me, I will do someone an injury!”
In the meantime, Dermot’s mother deliberately continued peeling potatoes. “Ruairi McFee is stronger and bigger than you are,” she remarked. “And he has the eyes of a hawk, fists like jack-hammers. You’ll never take Niamh away from him by force. But perhaps, now, there might be a little plan; just a little plan, mind you.”
Dermot picked up the fishing-rod again and his cunning eyes grew intent. Catriona resumed, in her high-pitched voice, speaking without a pause as she peeled the potatoes. “The best thing would be that they would have a quarrel, and I’ll tell you a way this could happen. He doesn’t like to hear that they are all saying she is a changeling, and he doesn’t like her to talk about the good folk. When she told him the story of the kelpie that followed Robbie McVey over the moss, and finally drowned him in the ‘Black Pool’, he was angry, and called it all nonsense, and said that she should never again talk about such things. Niamh, of course, was not happy about that. She was asking me about the ‘Cave of Gold’ only yesterday, and when it was that anyone might see the fairies dancing, and if the tides would allow us to go. So, I told her it was on Midsummer’s Night at twelve o’clock, and she is just mad to go! Clean mad! But Ruairi was there, too, and I was listening at the door, after, and I heard him say that it was all just silly talk and nonsense, and that he would prefer that she did not go. He told her that it was too late at night, and that nasty squalls would spring up, and our boat was not exactly seaworthy. She begged and prayed that he would take her, and he said, ‘No’! Every time she pleaded he simply told her, ‘No’!”
“Very well, then,” Dermot cried out impatiently, as she paused in her story, “I suppose she is so mad with love that she gave the entire idea up.”
“She is pretty much in love,” his mother agreed, “and so she gave in to his wishes. ‘And I am going over to Ballygarvey, Niamh,’ I heard him say, ‘to see what Mr. Campbell, the land-agent, is wanting to tell me, and you will promise not to go when I am away because it is not safe for a girl like you to be out so late. Will you promise me?’ And she promised him. He told her that he would bring her a new brooch made of silver and marble stones, and they kissed each other before he left.”
“Very well, what then?” Dermot cried angrily. “I hear they are to be married when he comes back. So, what else is there for me, mother?”
Catriona had dropped her potatoes into the pot, and she swung it over the open turf fire, which was glowing redly in the dark little cottage. “Well, if I were you, Dermot, I would get out the boat, and I would offer to take her to the cave. And I will be telling her more stories to-night, when we are spinning. That girl is a changeling, sure enough, and she will go. When Ruairi comes back, he will hear the story, and he will be mad with her, and they will quarrel. You can go over to Liscorr that day, to be out of his way. They will have an almighty row, and will break off their relationship, and she will turn to you, in time.”
Dermot slowly considered the plan and agreed that it suited him perfectly well. He didn’t want a noisy quarrel, and no measuring of strength. He, too, remembered Ruairi’s muscles at the hurling match. But this secretly conspiring in the dark, while McFee was away, was much to his taste. He made up his mind now that his mother was a woman of great wisdom. He told her he approved of her plan, and that he would get her a little present the next time that he went to Ballygarvey. After this, her stories to Niamh about the cave were many and very enticing!
“Dermot, Dermot, but I’ve promised!” It was the next night, and Niamh stood before the cottage in her dark wincey skirt and green cotton jacket, her face turned up to her cousin’s. All last night, all through the day, old Catriona’s stories had haunted her every thought. The old woman had gone about her task in a cunning fashion and began as soon as they were both seated at the spinning-wheel and, in a rambling manner said that the next day would be Midsummer’s Night, when the fairies would be holding their dancing in the Cave of Gold. She said that only she was old, and frail, and feeble, she would have gladly gone to watch the festivities! Catriona had the second sight and could perhaps see what no other person could see and, she appeared to confident that the journey would hold no danger! How she would love to see the little folk dancing! At this point her voice fell quiet, and she looked around her into all the dark shadows of the kitchen, and up by the oak bench that stood near the window. She pricked up her ears in the hope of hearing the faint and far-off tune of Old Dingus Murray’s fiddle, for they said that the legendary sound could still be heard.
Feeling a little uneasy, Niamh rose from her seat, saying she would go and see if there were enough oat-cakes for supper, or see if that was someone outside. But, Catriona spoke sharply to her and told her to sit down again. She was determined that the girl would not escape her and then she asked if Niamh had ever been told the story of Old Dingus Murray and the Cave of Gold. Niamh admitted she had never heard the story and she sat down again, the spinning wheel idle and the soft grey carded wool lying in her lap. Catriona, spinning fast, and with the low vibrations of the wheel acting as a sort of accompaniment to her voice, began to tell the story. She was an Irish speaker, which makes it difficult to express in the English language the creeping, insidious fear and mystery of the tale. A tale about how the fiddler, Dingus Murray, fell in love with an O’Neill from Dargan, whose father would not allow him to woo his daughter until he overcame several foolish and impossible tasks.
One task required him to enter the Cave of Gold at midnight, on Midsummer’s Night, and play “The O’Neill of Dargan” as he passed through the little dancing folk and penetrated far into the mystery of the cave’s depths to where no man had ever been. Dingus, of course, took up the challenge, and with his long hair waving wildly in the breeze and his fiddle in his hands, he was seen standing at the shingly edge of the cave with his teeth gritted for the task ahead. The men who had rowed Dingus up to the cave saw him standing there, and they heard the first wild pealing notes from his fiddle drift in the wind. Thus, playing proudly and happily, he entered the cave with his dog at his heels, while they waited, watched, and listened. At last they heard one terrifyingly awful cry, after which there was silence except for the sound of the wind. Dingus had passed through the fairies, but “He never came home!”
Then, changing her tone, Catriona told the story of the only woman who had ever caught sight of the ‘wee folk’, and how, forever after, riches and wealth were hers, and she had never a wish that had gone unsatisfied! It was the going on into the inner caves that had undone the piper! The lass who had seen the fairies was a certain Eileen Curran, and “she married a chieftain, and went to live far away in another part of the country, and all her days she was clad in green silk. Yes, all her days!”
“How did she leave?” asked Niamh.
“In a boat, with a man. It is easy, if the man is strong. Finally, Eileen Brid’s great stone cross at Craigmore, and they granted her even that! There she lies near the saintly Brid, and all because she had seen the ‘wee folk’ in the Cave of Gold!”
“Grandmother, would you lend me the magical rowan branch if I were to go?” Niamh whispered. “Would you, grandmother?” Her own voice frightened her for a moment and she imagined she could see Ruairi’s face appear before her. But, the old woman got up without a word, and, going to her linen cupboard took something, rolled in a fine kerchief, from it, which had the sweet smell of bog-myrtle in its folds, and she laid the brown faded leaves and the red, dry berries on Niamh’s lap.
“There it is! But you will give it back to me safely? or else bad things might happen to us all!”
“I will return it to you safely,” Niamh assured her. In her pocket she had the rowan, but Dermot was tampering with her conscience and her promise now.
“It was a very foolish thing to promise,” he said craftily. “Besides, Ruairi was afraid of the squalls, that is all, and there will be no squalls at all! You can come with me, and see if there is anything, and if my mother’s stories are true. If not, there is no harm done. It is a lovely cave to see.”
Niamh gave in, just as Catriona knew she would give in. Would she see anything? Would the ‘wee folk’ be there? Before she could fully explore these thoughts, Niamh found herself in the little boat, and rowing towards the cave. Strangely, the night seemed to be only a paler day and they rowed close into the shore, until they discovered a place where the rock-face was split and showed a pale light within. There was just enough space for the boat to float in, passing through a low, overhanging archway. Niamh drew in her breath sharply and clasped her hands, as Dermot paused, watching her face, once they were through it. They were in a deep circular basin, where the water was a lovely pale green that darkened in the shadows. The rocky sides were cut, here and there, into long narrow openings, into one of which Catriona’s fiddler must have wandered. Here Niamh saw the water lying dark and mysterious, shadow-haunted. Bending over the edge of the boat, she could see the yellow sand far below and in bright sunshine her own fair face would have been reflected. Tiny jelly-fish edged with lilac spots, and with long white fringe, floated beside the seaweed, like strange jewels, and far above them they could see the pale yellow-redness of the summer evening sky, soft, and exquisite. Fringing the opening were ferns and heather, and tall fox-gloves, but the fairy bells did not stir in the breathless air. Were the ‘wee folk’, the ‘good folk’, lurking within she wondered? If she watched, would she see a tiny face peep out at her? She waited, watched, and waited some more and the time passed. “Dermot, I don’t see anything!” Niamh spoke at last, breathlessly, eagerly. She had forgotten Ruairi, she had forgotten everything but her desire. “Row me further in, Dermot.”
He pushed the boat forward, and Niamh sat with her dark blue eyes, which seemed black in the shadow, and strained eagerly forward, listening, waiting. But, nothing moved, except that now and then little waves would break with a plashing ripple against the boat. Far up on the rocks, a passing breath of wind now and then swayed the flowers and the grasses, but no fairy face peeped out from anywhere, there was no tap of dancing feet, nor any note of fairy music.
“Dermot, Dermot, there is nothing, nothing at all!”
The note of bitter disappointment in her voice upset Dermot. Once or twice he had attempted to speak, because he did not want to make this trip in silence, but Niamh had raised her little brown hand sharply. She thought that his manly voice might disturb the fairies. But, at last the silence had started to affect even her. In her mind she began to think that it was all of no use, for she could see and hear nothing.
“We will just be going home then, Niamh” Dermot said in a quiet, practical tone of voice, unconcerned for the disappointment that Niamh was feeling because, in his opinion, the entire thing was just simple “foolishness.” “Maybe they are not dancing to-night and we would be better just go home.”
“She said I would be sure to see them,” Niamh sighed with a sob in her voice. As Dermot pushed the boat out, Niamh crushed the rowans bitterly in her lap, and they fell into the bottom of the boat. She remembered Ruairi suddenly, as, once outside, she noticed that the weather had changed during her stay in that dark cavern. The light seemed obscured; there were white horses leaping in the distance; and the wind swept sharply into their faces as they looked seaward. It would, Dermot realised, now be dangerous to keep so close to the rocks, for a heavy groundswell had risen. He glanced around and voiced some strong oaths as he grabbed the oars. In the growing swell Dermot knew he would need all the strength he possessed in his muscles to row the clumsy boat to safety, and he would have to keep the boat out to sea to avoid the jagged rocks.
During the long row home, through the now angry waters, Niamh sat silently in the boat. When Dermot asked her to “Bale!” almost angrily she did so almost mechanically, realising the danger of an ugly leak that had suddenly appeared. There was no emotion, for nothing seemed to matter. There were no fairies and she would have to tell Ruairi that she had broken her word. Finally, they found a sandy, sheltered bay where they could land safely. Only Dermot knew how hard he had struggled against the wind and the tide in that clumsy and leaking craft. Niamh, however, did not see the tall figure that was waiting on the shore until she was preparing to leap from the boat. Then a strong hand took hers, and with a startled cry she saw it was Ruairi himself, standing there, grim, grave, silent, with a new expression on his face, which chilled her through and through. She wondered just how it was that he was there?
He helped Dermot to pull the boat up on to the shore, with a look of disdain on his face as he saw the boat when it was finally lying out of the water. “It is a pretty boat,” he said a little scornfully, “a pretty boat to take a lass out in, I’ll give you that, Dermot McCann.”
Dermot did not reply but called to Niamh sharply and all three walked up to the cottage in total silence. The night, which had grown gusty and wet, seemed to have changed as suddenly and mysteriously as Niamh’s life. At the door she paused for a moment and faced her lover, whose annoyed her terribly. “Well?” she said, “well?”
If she had pleaded with him. If she had been penitent, sorrowful! But, unfortunately, it was no penitent face which met his, and jealousy and wrath erupted within him, driving love aside. “Are you asking what I am thinking, Niamh?” he cried, “of the girl who promised me, and who broke her word, and went out with Dermot McCann? Well, I am thinking just nothing at all of her! I have warned her that the boat was not safe, and of the squalls, and that it was not the thing for a girl like her to go so late. She had promised, and yet she went! And this was the Tara brooch made of Connemara marble stones I have bought for you. But, it can go there!” He stormed as he flung the little packet remorselessly into the nearby bushes. “And as for yourself, I think nothing of you at all, everything between us is over. I am now leaving for a new life in Australia tomorrow along with John Campbell. He asked me some time ago, and I said ‘No,’ but I will go now, and will go to Derry this very night! Good-bye.”
He turned away from her then, in his fury. All of this passed as suddenly, swept up as unexpectedly as had the squall outside the Cave of Gold. Niamh stood as if dazed, staring straight before her. An Irishman’s anger is like a great storm against which one must bend, and this is what Niamh did now.
Ruairi did not look back. Dermot, in the doorway, saw him stride on to the road, through the little patch of potatoes growing in front of the door. He set his face towards the high road for Derry and a very short time the sound of his footsteps had died away and the darkness of the night had swallowed him. That was all right, Dermot thought to himself, “Australia! Sure, isn’t that the best place for him?”
“There follows a mist, and a weeping rain,
And life is never the same again!”
Niamh might have thought about these words, if she had known them, over the many days that followed. For Ruairi McFee was not the man sort of man to change his mind, nor speak it. He sailed from Derry to Liverpool and within the week he was believed to have boarded a ship for Australia. Many had gone before him and his many friends in Ireland believed he would vanish there. These were the days of sailing ships and slow communication, and Ruairi had never been the kind to write.
But Niamh did not marry her cousin, as everyone expected, including McCann. She told him “No,” gently, but quite doggedly, and nothing that he could say, or that Catriona could cause her to change her mind. Once the old woman muttered vengefully that she would never see the fairies, for she had lost her luck, and Niamh turned on her in a fierce temper. “It is all false,” she cried aloud so all would hear her, “for there are no green folk at all, and I do not care!”
The mystery and the charm of life had left her, for she no longer dreamed on the green grass circle, or wonder at the night-song of the burn. She no longer kept watch for the kelpies under the boulders, in the burns, or in the Rowan Pool. Her belief in the fairies had faded on the same night that Ruairi had left her, and only in that little white kirk on the hill-side, would you hear Niamh raise her voice in song. The joys that song can bring dies quickly on one’s lips when care and sorrow lie heavy on one’s heart. Years had passed since that fatal visit was paid to the Cave of Gold, Niamh never mentioned it, and she was returning, in the soft, golden haze of a September evening, from the castle. Catriona was growing feeble, and Niamh did everything she could for her, while the old woman only spun a little, and wandered out to gather sticks and twigs for the fire. The girl had been taking up carded wool to the castle and giving the great London ladies there a spinning lesson. But, before the cottage came into her view, with its surrounding field of poor and thinly growing oats and potatoes, she paused to look up the fairy knoll. There, on the top was the fairy ring and something suddenly made Niamh turn and mount the little hill.
The loch below her vantage point was tinged with red and the sky was a wonder and a glory. But, Niamh was not looking at the sky, or at the loch. She was thinking just how strange it was that she should go on living, and living much as usual, when all that was best and fairest in life was now gone. She sighed, looking down at the stream, splashing and leaping over the grey boulders. There was that story about the kelpies, but her grandmother rarely spoke of them now. Were there really no kelpies? No Fairies? And yet, …
A step behind her had made her stop quickly, and she gave a sharp cry. A man’s tall figure was there, not ten yards off, and the thought came to Niamh that perhaps, after all, it was all true, for this was a ghost! And if there were ghosts, why not wee folk and kelpies? “I believe it is Niamh, herself. Do you not know me, Niamh?”
He spoke in a clear voice. There was no hint of a brogue, only the politest English. He spoke easily, with a strange accent. And yet, she knew him at once! It was Ruairi! Ruairi, well-dressed, handsome, upright, with a different and more independent carriage, but Ruairi all the same! Niamh stood quietly for a moment before speaking, “You are a great stranger,” she said. “It is a very long time, I believe, since you have been in Ireland.”
He almost smiled. He was looking down at her intently. He wondered how it could be possible that she had changed so little, or had those five years been simply a dream? There, just as he remembered her, was Niamh, with the pale, clear, skin, the deep sloe-eyes, the ruddy crisp hair, and that characteristic little drop of her head! It was the girl that he had turned his back on, and been furious with, and had quite forgotten. Yes, he had quite forgotten her, though he had come back to this place, supposedly just to see how all the old folks were doing. “It is five years,” he said to her, “five years! Are you, are you married, Niamh?”
The girl raised her eyes and looked at him. It was getting dark, and the stream was beginning its night-song. Niamh had suddenly noticed that, and she began to remember just how the water used to sing. The lovely, indescribably fragrant breath of the nearby moor swept into their faces by the breeze. It was a sweet and enchanting smell that complemented the velvety depths of her eyes and that beautifully familiar mouth. He wanted to know if she was married and even repeated the question, but with a new and eager ring in his voice, and Niamh shook her head.
“Though there have been a good many marriages since you left. There was Marie McLean and Donald McNamee, and there was Colin – ” she began to tell him.
“What about McCann, your cousin?”
“He is to be married this year,” she said, “to an English girl, believe it or not.”
“So, you did not marry him, after all, Niamh?”
“Who said that I would?” she cried, as if she had been slapped. “You knew better than that! Who said that I would?”
“He did! And he said that you would go with him that night, if he asked you. And you did, Niamh! It was very cruel, but –” Ruairi paused for a moment before saying then, “But I am beginning to think that I was cruel, too. Was I?” He waited and watched her reaction.
Niamh nodded gently and spoke softly to him. “Yes, you were cruel, Ruairi, and you were very hasty. It is true that I was a foolish girl, but you might have given me another chance. I believed in my grandmother’s stories. I wanted to see the good folk.” She looked away, and sadness and disillusion crept over her face. “But I do not believe in them anymore. No, not anymore.”
“Poor little Niamh. Poor wee girl!” He began to believe that it could not be five years. It could not, and they had only parted yesterday.
“But it does not matter,” said Niamh, “and now perhaps you will call and see my grandmother? Are you on your way now?”
Ruairi did not answer that. “Niamh,” he said, “I was very cruel, and I was just as angry as a man could be, and for five years I have been mad and sore. But, deep down, deep down, I never forgot you. I hated him, but I loved you. I will come and see your grandmother, but first, first, will you give me a kiss, Niamh, for the sake of the old days?”
Would she? he wondered. Perhaps, after all, he did not need to wait for her consent. He had her in his arms, and they closed round her, and Niamh’s head fell on his shoulder with a little sob that was a summary of all the five years of sorrow and heartache. “My darling,” Ruairi whispered, “I love you, and when I leave here, you will come too, or I will be staying on here with you. You shall choose Niamh, you shall choose, and to-morrow I will buy you something better than the Tara brooch that I was cruel enough to throw away!”
Together, hand-in-hand, they walked down to the cottage, and Catriona, who was never surprised at anything, shook hands sourly with him. She heard his story in silence, and nodded consent when he told her that he and Niamh were to be married, after all. He could look after the place, she said, or he could buy Con McGill’s farm, just above, if he had the money. Would he have money enough? For Dermot kept her very close now. With a bright smile Ruairi laid a packet in her lap, and said he thought he had money enough.
The next morning, Catriona saw him coming up the road. Niamh ran to meet him, and together they wandered off to the side of the stream. They came back by-and-by, and Niamh stood smiling in the cottage door, her arms full of rowan branches and Ruari had a spray in his coat, and the red berries nestled under her chin. “I have brought you back luck,” the girl cried happily. “We found the rowans down by the pool. And Ruairi says that there are maybe good folk in the world, after all! Who knows, grandmother?”
Catriona’s peat-brown old face was bent over her wheel. She allowed there might be one or two, with a half-grunt of satisfaction.