THE BAREFOOTED WOMAN.
After the match between Sive and Cormac, it was not long until two other matches were made. A match was made for the Maid of the Liss with a brother of Nora of the Causeway, and a match was made for Nora herself with one of the King's men. He met her on the fair-green on the day when the horses were distributed. He had a house in the city near the house in which Cormac and Sive were going to live. As soon as he went home he asked leave of absence for a month, and he got it, and he came and married Nora and took her away with him. Her unmarried brother went off with them, expecting to get a place in the King's army. That left the Causeway and all it contained to the Maid of the Liss and her husband.
When that was done, all was quiet. Any day from that forward, if you happened to be passing by that house of Shiana's, you would hear, as usual, the tapping of the little hammers, the low whistling of the workmen, and the drawing and tightening of the waxed thread. If you went in you would see the soogaun chair and the malvogue, and you would hear the long heavy breathing of Shiana himself as he worked vigorously. But there was no knowing when anyone had heard "torment" or "trouble" upon the "bristly hag" from him.
You would not see Michael there. He was below at Grey Dermot's house, keeping the shop and selling the leather and receiving the money, and he felt himself to be a substantial, influential man. You would think it would not cause him a bit of surprise if he were asked to go security for half the parish.
As time went on, people used to notice that there was a change coming over the disposition and mind and habits of Shiana. Everybody knew that he had always been a peculiar man, with a peculiar disposition and a peculiar mind. They all felt convinced that no matter how intimate you might be with him you would never have any chance of getting to know the inside of his mind. But people felt, or thought they felt, that he was not the same Shiana of late. It was never his habit to talk much, but of late he scarcely spoke to anyone. When people used to speak to him, they would get very little talk out of him, but what they did get was in a low voice, and gentle.
Sometimes he used to drive on at his work so violently that he would be in streams of perspiration. At other times he would remain ever so long with his left elbow on his knee, and his left hand under his jaw, looking out of the door and over at the hill, and not making a single motion any more than if he had been without life or breath. Often, when he used to be in that brown study, people would see him holding his right hand in his bosom as if he had a hard grip of something that he had there, hidden. When he used to come out of that sort of trance, a deep breath would come from his chest, and a sigh out of his heart, that you would not be the better of hearing. The workmen were filled with wonder, but they did not pretend to notice anything. To tell the truth, they felt afraid of him. They did not know what in all the world was the matter with him. They could only say, as Michael said to his mother the first time he noticed the state of things, that it must be that there was some very grievous trouble upon him. But as to what the trouble was, or what was the cause of it, they knew absolutely nothing.
John Kittach noticed the change. He noticed the strain that was upon the heart and mind of the man, but he was more puzzled than ever as to what was the cause of it. There was Sive married and not a word from anybody about any promise of marriage between herself and Shiana. From the day when Shiana himself was west at the house speaking to Short Mary, she had not uttered as much as a single word about the match, nor about the talk that took place between them. Other messages came to them regarding matches, but she did not let her father take any notice of them. She used to give him no reason except that she did not like them.
It was spread about the district that Shiana was in some trouble of mind, but when people saw all those women married, and that he did not take a bit of notice of it, the tattlers were in a desperate fix. They would have liked to say he was losing his wits about some one of those women, but they could not say that. He was at the two other weddings as well as at Sive's wedding, and it was very easy to see that he was not a bit interested in any of the other two women any more than he was in Sive. It could not be said that he was losing his wits about Short Mary, because there was no one taking her away from him. The talkers would have liked to say that his reason was giving way, that he was suffering from some mental derangement that he had inherited. But they could not say that, because there was not a man in the parish of more decisive judgment than he, nor one who could give shrewder advice, nor one more clear-sighted upon an arbitration than he. The end of it was that the talkers had to give up the pursuit, for they failed to reach the truth from any point.
Shiana himself knew right well, though, what was the matter with him. The last year of the thirteen years was going at a hand-gallop. According as he was moving on towards the end of the time the poor fellow used to be thinking more closely and more constantly upon what was before him, until the thought hardly ever left his mind. There used to be such a strain and such an oppression upon his heart and upon his mind from constantly dwelling upon that one thought, that he used to think an hour longer than a day while the hour was passing; and then when the hour would be past, he used to think there had not been two minutes in it. He used to think the day, while the day would be passing, longer than a week; and when the day was spent he used to imagine that there had not been even one hour in it. He used to think the night longer than a year, and when the morning came he used to think there had been no night at all. But he used to think they all, hours and minutes and nights and days, were running a race against each other, they were going at such a pace—and nothing between him and the end of the time but the few of them that were unspent.
Often, when he used to go to bed, when he would be lying on the bed without a single wink of sleep coming to him, but his heart palpitating and his eyes wide open, he would get up and go out, and up the hill, until he reached the moss-plot where the barefooted woman gave him the beautiful gem. He used to hope that perhaps he would see her there again. He did not see her, but his visit would not be in vain. He used to feel that she was there beside him, and that she used to hear his speech and understand the trouble that was upon him. He used to argue and dispute with her because she did not show herself to him. He would repeat the words she spoke the day he saw her, and remind her of them, and ask her if she remembered the promise she had given him, and beg her, for the love of the Saviour, not to fail him when the terror came. No voice or word used to come from her, but even so, he was not without an answer to his words. The conviction used to come to his mind from her, as well as if she had spoken, "that he need not have any fear if he would only put his trust in God." When he had spent a while of the night in that way in her company on the hill, a calm used come upon him. The strain and the oppression used to lift from his heart, so that he used to wonder what it was that took away his troubles. When he saw the glimmering of the day coming he used to face for home, and go and lie down in his bed as if he had spent the night in it.
Well, at length the last day was close upon him.
"It was thirteen years ago to-morrow," said he to himself, "that I left home to buy some leather. I had three shillings in my pocket. They could not go very far, but they were all I had. I was asked for them, for the Saviour's sake. I gave them. I could not help it. How could I have kept them? They were all I had, but even so, they were not mine. Everything belongs to God. I should have been only keeping His own from Him, praise be to Him! I did not keep them at all events, whatever the result may be for me now—I was strictly bound by the virtue of the Holy Things—I accepted the bond, strictly—by my own free will."
He would take up a shoe and begin to work. Soon he would fling; it away again. He would walk out and look about him, as if he were expecting somebody to come. The men thought he was expecting some one, and that probably the expected person would soon come. If they had known who it was that was expected, most likely they would not have stayed long in the place. They knew nothing about it, and they went on working as hard as they could. When it was time to stop, they got up to go home.
"Wait a moment, men," said Shiana. "Perhaps it might happen that I should be away from home to-morrow, and that I should not be back here in time to give you the week's wages. It is as well for you to take the money now. I do not think there is any danger of your not doing the work honestly." And he handed them the money.
As soon as they were gone, he went off up the hill. There was a cliff on the northern side of the hill; it used to be called the Ravens' Cliff. He went and sat on the top of that cliff. He was looking down upon the broken rocks that were at the bottom of the cliff below, and he was thinking in his mind what a shattering a man's bones would get if he were flung down. He left that place, and he went along the hill westward until he was on the top of another hill that was on the western side of the glen. The Dogs' Rock was the name of that hill. He went into a cave in that hill. "Diarmuid's Bed" was the name of the cave. There was another cave over against that one, called "Grania's Bed." He remained in the cave for a good while, thinking of all the beautiful Fenian stories he had ever heard, about Diarmuid and Grania, and Finn and the Fiana, and all their doings.
When it was nightfall he returned to the moss-plot and lay down in it. The weather was dry and the sky was clear. The moss was fine and dry and warm because the sun had been shining on the plot all day. The plot faced south, so that there was shelter in it from any breath of wind that there was from the north. He was lying on the moss-plot listening to the whispering and breathing of the gentle wind through the heather round him, while none of the wind came upon himself. From the exercise he had given himself walking the hill, and from the warmth of the moss, and from that lullaby of the wind through the heather, the poor fellow was soon sleeping soundly.
Some time in the night he felt something like a person's hand upon his head, and his sleep left him. Sleep left him so completely that he felt as if there were not a hair's weight in any of his limbs. He looked aside. She was there kneeling at his left shoulder, with one hand on his head, and she was looking into his eyes. It was the barefooted woman. He remained looking at her while she looked into his eyes. The night Was very black and dark. He could see the sky up above her head. There was neither moon nor star in the sky, but it was like an intensely black mass, high and vast and empty. He was looking at the woman's countenance, at her eyes and at her brow and at her face. He had no light to see by but the light which was coming from the countenance itself. He continued looking at her. He could not help it. He thought his eyes had never beheld any human face so beautiful as the face of that woman! If he were to get all Ireland for it he could not take his eyes off her. As he continued looking at her the beauty increased, and the emanation of bliss and joy increased, in her brow and in her eyes and in her mouth, and she looked as if she were about to open her mouth to speak, while he was waiting for the word to come. The bliss and the joy poured in through his eyes and back into his brain and down into his heart and breast, so that there came upon him such a sense of happiness, and contentment of mind, and consolation of heart, that he could have wished that neither he nor she should leave that place for ever. The longer and the more intently he looked, the more the brow became brighter, and the eyes nobler and more loving, and the mouth sweeter and gentler and more smiling, and her face shone with increasing light, and inspired increasing joy and increasing gladness, as she seemed to be just going to open her mouth to speak to him: until he thought his heart was going out of his breast to her, by the intensity of his happiness and bliss, and love for her.
At last she spoke.
"He is coming to you, Shiana!" said she. "The enemy is almost close to you," said she. And if it was a great gladness and delight to look at her beautiful, noble countenance, even greater was the gladness and delight of listening to the sound of her speech.
Shiana had not a care in the world as to who was coming to him or where the enemy was, so long as he was looking up at her, and listening to her, with her hand upon his head, and, to crown all the happiness, realising in his own mind that it was through regard and sympathy and love for himself that she had come to him and had appeared to him.
"Shiana," said she, "the foe is coming to you, full of rage and malice. Your foe is coming to take vengeance upon you for all the evil you have inflicted upon him during those thirteen years. To-morrow night he will come. He has made a slight mistake. He thinks that it is at midnight to-morrow night the time will be spent. The time will not be spent for four hours after that. The bargain was, under the virtue of the Holy Things, that the purse should be in your possession and should remain with you for thirteen years in full. That day that you went to the fair to buy a horse and a milch cow some one took the purse from you, and it was out of your possession for four hours. It was I that took it from you. I took it from you unknown to him. Had you bought that cow or that horse and paid money for the purchase, you would have violated the contract, and he would have had power to work his will upon you. When I saw what you were bent upon, I took the purse from you, so that even if you bought, there should be no danger that you would pay. It was to buy leather you got the money. He is watching you ever since, to see if you would buy anything but leather. You did not. It was well for yourself that you did not. You paid out a good deal of the money in other ways, but that did not affect the contract. No contract would have power to forbid charity. Whatever money you gave away for the Saviour's sake was given in charity. The money you spent in any other way, apart from the buying of the leather, was made out of the work. It was your own."
"I give thanks to the Eternal Father, who created you!" said Shiana, as he looked up at her. It was not in answer to her words he said it, but through the great joy that was in his heart because of her being there near him and he looking up at her and listening to the sweet music of her speech.
"He does not know," said she, "that the purse spent those four hours out of your possession. He was bound not to let anybody take the purse from you. He himself believes that he did not. He is waiting for the hour of midnight to-morrow night to work his will upon you, and to inflict vengeance upon you for all that you have done to spite him for the past thirteen years, giving alms for the sake of the Saviour out of the purse which he himself gave to you, whereas it was not for giving alms he gave it to you, but in the hope that it would cause harm and mischief and misfortune to yourself and to every Christian who should ever get a half-penny of it into his hand."
"I give thanks to the Eternal Father who created you,—and to Christ who redeemed you,—and to the Holy Ghost who sanctified you!" said Shiana. When he had said those words he wondered at himself, because it seemed to him that it was not his own voice that was coming out of his chest or out of his mouth.
"Show me," said she, "that thing I gave you that day you parted with the good young woman for the Saviour's sake."
He drew the jewel out of his bosom and handed it to her.
"It is not as bright as it was that day, but it is not so very bad," said she, and she took the little ball into her hand. Instantly the ball shone up again, in the centre of her palm, just as it had shone the first day, so that Shiana could hardly look at it, and when he did look at it, little blue spots came before his eyes, just as they would to one who would look straight at the sun.
"Here," said the woman. "Put it away again and keep it about you. You will want it to-morrow night." And she handed him back the jewel. He put it away again in his bosom where he had it before.
She opened her left hand. The shilling was there in the middle of her palm, the same shilling that he had given to her that first day when he was going to buy the leather.
"Here," said she. "Put this away also." He took the shilling and put it away.
"Listen attentively now, Shiana," said the woman, "to what I have to say to you. When it is coming on toward midnight, to-morrow night, take the soogaun chair and place it exactly in the position in which it was that day it was stuck to the ground, and place that shilling on the ground, in under the centre of the chair, and cover it over so that it cannot be seen. Go then yourself and sit on your working-seat and be working as hard as you can. When the enemy comes do not pretend anything, but go on with the work. When he bids you go with him, tell him to wait until the time comes. If you succeed in making him sit in the chair you will have the upper hand of him. But remember this especially—whatever thing he may tell you to do, for your life do not do it. Do not do anything he tells you to do."
"I give—thanks—to the Eternal Father———" While Shiana was saying those words, and failing to bring them out properly, she was moving away, moving away, moving away; and the light on her face was getting fainter, and fainter, and fainter. His eyelids were closing together, closing together, closing together. Before he could finish pronouncing the words she was gone, and he was sound asleep.