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Piper Tim by Dorothy Canfield

I

When Moira O'Donnell was born, Timothy Moran was thirty-three years old, a faery number, as he often told himself afterward. When he was forty and she was seven, another mystic number, he dedicated his life to her and she gave him back his lost kingdom of enchantment. It was on the evening of her seventh birthday that she led him to the Land of Heart's Desire he thought he had left forever in green and desolate Donegal, and her birthday fell on the seventh of October, and October is the month when the little people are busiest. He never forgot what she did for him that evening, although her part in it was so brief.

His own birthday was on the thirteenth of the month, and he often laid his sorrows to that unchancy date. On the seventh he sat on the old Round Stone, his pipes lying silent beside him, and brooded on his heavy ill. Father Delancey had just left him and had told him flatly that he had no ills at all. Hence he sat, his heart heavier than ever, drooping, under the great maple tree, the road white before him, leading away into the empty, half-translucent shadows of starlight. Father Delancey had said it was only the faery nonsense in his head that made him miserable, and had marshaled before him the irrefutable blessings of his life. Had he not been cared for from the first minute of his landing from Ireland, a penniless piper of nineteen, as though the holy saints themselves were about him? Had he not gone direct to Father Delancey, sent by the priest in Donegal, and had not Father Delancey at once placed him in the Wilcox family, kindliest, heartiest, and most stirring of New England farmers? And had he not lived in prosperity with them ever since?

Timothy started at the faery number. “Twinty-one years? So 'tis, Father—an' more! 'Tis twinty-one years to-day since I came, aven and true—the seventh day of October. Sure, somethin' ought to happen on such a day—oughtn't it?”

“Happen?” queried Father Delancey.

“The seventh day of October, the twinty-first year and October bein' the month for thim,” said Timothy, elucidating confidently.

Father Delancey frowned and broke into an angry exclamation, “'Tis simple mad ye are, Timothy Moran, with your faery foolishness, and I've a half a mind to take your pipes away from you as a penance for your ignorant superstition!”

“But, Father, I'm the seventh son and sure ye must admit 'tis a lonesome country, all this, that looks so like Donegal and Killarney mountains, an' is so dead-like, wi' no little people to fill up the big gap between the dead an' the livin', an' the good an' the bad. 'Tis empty, all this valley.”

“Timothy Moran, that are my sister's husband's cousin's son, I'm ashamed of ye, an' I bid ye note that 'twas the hand of the Blessed Virgin herself that sent ye out o' Ireland, for if you'd 'a' stayed in th' ould country you'd 'a' been bewitched long before now—not, savin' us all th' blessed saints, that I belave in any of your nonsense!”

Timothy smiled at this with an innocent malice. “You see how 'tis, Father. You cannot kape yourself from belivin' in thim and you a man o' God.”

“I do not, Timothy! Tis but a way of speech that I learned in my childhood. An' 'tis lucky for you that I have a knowledge of thim, for any other priest would have driven you out of the parish, you and your stubborn pipes that do naught but play faery music. An' you a man of forty in a trifle of six days, and no wife an' childer to keep you from foolish notions. If ye had, now, you could be livin' in the proper tenant's house for the Wilcox's man, instead of Michael O'Donnell, who has no business livin' up here on the hill so far from his work that he can come home but once a week to look after his poor motherless child. I will say for you, Tim, that you do your duty by that bit of a slip of a girl baby, keepin' her so neat and clean an' all, times when Mike's not here.”

Timothy did not raise his drooping head at this praise, and something about his attitude struck sharp across the priest's trained observation. The big, shambling, red-headed man looked like a guilty child. There was a moment's silence, while Father Delancey speculated, and then his experienced instinct sped him to the bull's-eye. “Timothy Moran, you're not putting your foolish notions in the head of that innocent child o' God, Moira O'Donnell, are you?”

The red head sank lower.

“Answer me, man! Are ye fillin' her mind with your sidhe[A] and your red-hatted little people an' your stories of 'gentle places' an' the leprechaun?”

[Footnote A: Pronounced shee (as in Banshee), the fairies.]

Timothy arose suddenly and flung his long arms abroad in a gesture of revolt. “I am that, Father Delancey, 'tis th' only comfort of my life, livin' it, as I do, in a dead country—a valley where folks have lived and died for two hundred years such lumps of clay that they niver had wan man sharp enough to see the counts in between heaven and earth.” He lapsed again into his listless position on the Round Stone. “But ye needn't be a-fearin' for her soul, Father—her wid th' black hair an' the big gray eyes like wan that cud see thim if she wud! She's as dead a lump as anny of th' rest—as thim meat-eatin' Protestants, the Wilcoxes, heaven save the kindly bodies, for they've no souls at all, at all.” From the stone he picked up a curiously shaped willow whistle with white lines carved on it in an odd criss-cross pattern. “To-day's her seventh birthday, an' I showed her how to make the cruachan whistle, an' when I'd finished she blew on it a loud note that wud ha' wakened the sidhe for miles around in Donegal. An' then she looked at me as dumb as a fish, her big gray eyes blank as a plowed field wid nothin' sown in it. She niver has a word to show that she hears me, even, when I tell o' the gentle people.” He added in a whisper to himself, “But maybe she's only waiting.”

“'Tis the Virgin protectin' her from yer foolishness, Tim,” returned the priest, rising with a relieved air. “She'll soon be goin' to district school along with all the other hard-headed little Yankees, and then your tales can't give her notions.” With which triumphant meditation he walked briskly away, leaving Timothy to sit alone with his pipes under the maple-tree, flaming with a still heat of burning autumn red, like a faery fire.

His head sank heavily in his hands as his heart grew intolerably sad with the lack he felt in all the world, most of all in himself. He had often tried to tell himself what made the world so dully repellant, but he never could get beyond, “'Tis as though I was aslape an' yet not quite aslape—just half wakin', an' somethin' lovely is goin' on in the next room, an' I can't wake up to see what 'tis. The trouble's with th' people. They're all dead aslape here, an' there's nobody to wake me up.”

“Piper Tim! Piper Tim!” was breathed close to his ear. He sprang up, with wide, startled eyes.

“Piper Tim,” said the little girl gravely, “I've seen them.”

The man stared at her in a breathless silence.

“A little wee woman with a red hat and kerchief around her neck, an' she said, 'Go straight to Piper Tim an' tell him to play “The Call o' the Sidhe” as he sits on the Round Stone, for this is th' day of the Cruachan Whistle.'“

The child put out her hand, and drew him to the pipes, still keeping her deep eyes fixed on him, “Play, Piper Tim, an' shut your eyes an' I'll see what you should see an' tell you what 'tis.”

The first notes were quavering as the man's big frame shook, but the little hands across his eyes seemed to steady him, and the final flourish was like a call of triumph. In the silence which followed the child spoke in her high little treble with a grave elation. “They're here, Piper Tim, all the river fog in the valley is full of them, dancin' and singin' so gay-like to cheer up the poor hills. An' whist! Here they come up the road, troops and troops of them, all so bright in the ferlie green; an' sure,” with a little catch of merriment, “sure, they've no toes on their feet at all! They've danced them all away. And now, Piper Tim, hold your breath, for they'll be after comin' by, but all so still, so still! so you won't hear them and maybe think to open your eyes and see them—for that 'ud mean—sh! sh! Piper Tim, don't stir! They're here! They're here!”

His eyes ached with the pressure of the strong little hands across them, his ears ached with straining them into the silence which lay about them. His heart beat fast with hope and then with certainty. Yes, it was no longer the thin, dead silence of the New England woods he knew so unhappily well. It was the still that comes with activity suspended. It was like the quivering quiet of a dancer, suddenly stricken motionless to listen for the sound of intruding footsteps. There was not the faintest sound, but the silence was full of that rich consciousness of life which marks the first awakening of a profound sleeper.

The hands were withdrawn from before his eyes, but he did not open them. He reached blindly for his pipes, and played “The Song of Angus to the Stars,” tears of joy running from between his closed eyelids, to recognize in his own music the quality he had been starving for; the sense of the futile, poignant beauty, of the lovely and harmless tragedy, of the sweet, moving, gay sad meaning of things.

When he looked about him he was quite alone. Moira was gone, and the road lay white and still before him.

II

He did not see her all the next day, although he went down to the little house to do the household tasks his big hands performed with so curious a skill. He wished to see her and clear his mind of a weight which the morning's light had put upon him; but she did not come in answer to his call. The little house seemed full of her in its apparent emptiness, and several times he had swung sharply about, feeling her back of him, but always the room had turned a blank face.

That evening he was returning late from the upland pastures where he had been searching vainly for a lost cow. His path lay through a thick copse of maple saplings where it was quite dark. As he emerged into a stony pasture, he saw the child standing still in the center of a ring of fern, brown and crumpled by the early frosts. When he appeared she held him motionless by the sudden passion of her gestured appeal for silence. She did not stir after this, her hands laid along her cheeks as though to hold her head quite still, her eyes directed with a smiling eagerness toward a huge rock, looming dimly in the transparent twilight. The silence was oppressive. Timothy's blood ran chill as the expectancy grew more and more strained in the child's eyes. He did not dare look at the rock himself. He stared only at the elfin creature before him, and when her hands were finally flung out in a gesture of welcoming ardor, he broke the unearthly silence by crying out loud in a rapid whirl, “God save us. Christ save us! The Holy Virgin guard us! St. Patrick defend us! St. Columba—”

The little girl burst into a storm of tears and sank down on the ferns. Timothy stopped his hysterical litany and ran toward her. “Don't you come a-near me, bad Piper Tim!” she sobbed. “You don't dare step on the magic circle anyhow. It 'ud burn your wicked foot!”

The big farm laborer drew back in a terror he instantly disguised. “I was just lookin' for you, Moira aroon,” he said propitiatingly. “I was wishin' to tell you—to tell you—why, that it's all pretend. There aren't any little people really, you know. Tis just old Tim's nonsense.” He shivered at the blasphemy and crossed himself. “Or, if there are any, 'tis only in th' ould country.” The child rose to her feet, eying him strangely, her eyes like deep pools.

He went on conscientiously, with a mental eye on Father Delancey, “An' if there are any, which they aren't, they're bad things for Christians to have aught to do with, because they know neither right nor wrong, and 'tisn't fit that mortals should iver be light an' gay wi' that burden gone! So they're bad for us—an' we shouldn't think of thim, and just cross ourselves wheniver—”

The unspoken protest in the child's face was grown so passionate that he interrupted himself to answer it in a burst of sympathy. “Och, Moira, acushla, sure an' I know how 'tis to ye—” And then with a reaction to virtue, he said sternly, “An' if they're not bad, why do they go when you call on the blessed saints?”

At this the child's face twisted again for tears. “Och, bad Piper Tim, to scare them away from me! It's not that they're bad—only that good's too heavy for them. They're such little people! It's too heavy! It's too heavy.” She ran away through the dusk, sobbing and calling this over her shoulder reproachfully.

In the weeks which followed, old Timothy Moran, as he was called, could scarcely complain that he was but half awake. He seemed to be making up for the dull apathy of his long exile by the storminess of his days and nights. Mrs. Wilcox, bustling housewife, hastening about the kitchen, engaged in some late evening task, was moved to a sudden burst of hysterical tears, by the faint sound of Tim's pipes, dropping down to her from the Round Stone in a whirling roulade of ever-ascending merriness. “You, Ralph!” she cried angrily through her sobs, to her oldest boy, stricken open-mouthed and silent by his mother's amazing outburst, “you, Ralph, run up to the Round Stone and tell the Irishman to stop playing that jig over and over. I'm that tired to-night it drives me wild with nerves!” As she brushed away the tears she said fretfully, “My sakes! When my liver gets to tormenting me so I have the megrims like a girl, it's time to do something.”

The boy came back to say that Old Tim had stopped playing “the jig" before he reached him, and was lying sobbing on the stone.

Moira was as approachable as a barn swallow, swooping into the house for a mouthful of food and off again to the sky apparently. Timothy's child-heart was guiltily heavy within him, for all his excitement, and when he finally caught her in the pine woods he spoke briefly and firmly, almost like Father Delancey himself. “Moira, Tim was a big fool to tell you lies. There aren't really any little people. Tis only a way of talkin'-like, to say how lovely the woods and stars an' all are.”

“Why do you sit on the Round Stone evenings?” asked Moira defiantly.

“That's just it! I pretend all kind o' things, but it's really because the moon is like gold, and the white fog comes up in puffs like incense in the church, an' the valley's all bright wi' lamps like the sky wi' stars. That's all anybody means by fairies—just how lovely things are if we can but open our eyes to see thim, an' take time from th' ugly business o' livin' to hear thim, and get a place quiet enough to half see what everything means. I didn't know before, in Ireland, but now I'm like one born again to the ferie country, and now I think I know. There aren't any Little People really but just in your own head—”

Moira shook off his hand and faced him, laughing mockingly, her dark eyes wide with an elfin merriment. “Are there not, Piper Tim? Are there not? Listen! You'll see!” She held up a tiny forefinger to the great man towering above her. As he looked down on her, so pixy-like in the twilight of the pines, he felt his flesh creep. She seemed to be waiting for something infinitely comic which yet should startle her. She was poised, half turned as though for flight, yet hung so, without a quiver in an endless listening pause. The man tried in vain to remember the name of a single saint, so held was he by the breathless expectancy in the eyes of the little hobgoblin. His nerves gave way with a loud snap when she suddenly leaped up at him with snapping fingers and some whispered, half-heard exclamation of “Now! Now!” and turning he plunged down the hill in panic-stricken flight. And the next day Father Delancey took her down to the valley to begin her schooling.

III

Upon her return she had adopted the attitude which she never changed during all the years until Timothy went away. She would not speak openly, nor allow Tim to discuss “their” existence. “They mind their business and we should mind ours,” she said, eying him hard; but she made his world over for him. Every spring she came back from the valley school and every autumn she went away; and the months in between were golden. After Timothy's work was done in the evenings, he left the hot kitchen, redolent of food and fire and kindly human life, took his pipes up on the Round Stone and played one after another of the songs of the sidhe, until the child's white face shone suddenly from the dusk.

Then their entertainment varied. Sometimes they sat and watched the white river fog rise toward them, translucent and distant at first, and then blowing upon them in gusty, impalpable billows. Timothy's tongue was loosened by the understanding in the little girl's eyes and he poured out to her the wise foolishness of his inconsequent and profound faery lore. He told her what was in the fog for him, the souls of mountain people long dead, who came back to their home heights thus. He related long tales of the doings of the leprechaun, with lovely, irrelevant episodes, and told her what he thought was their meaning.

Some nights the moon rode high and the air was clear and those were not the times for words—only for sitting quite still and playing every air in all the world on the pipes. Moira lay beside him, her strange, wide eyes fixed intently on the road and the shadows until she peopled them almost visibly to the musician with the folk of his melodies—with Angus, the beautiful and strong, with Maive, the sad, the happy, with Congal of the frightful Vision of War, and Mananan, strange wanderer on these mountain tops.

Sometimes it rained, the long steady downpour of summer nights, and they sat on the steps of Michael O'Donnell's little cabin, Timothy's pipes sounding sweet and shrill against the deep note of the rushing rain. This was the time of the wildest stories, when sheltering walls were close about them; of newly wed wives carried off by the fairies to live happy always, always without a moment of pain, and then to perish utterly on the Day of Judgment, like a last year's butterfly, for souls cannot live without sorrow; of newly born babes whose souls were carried away by the sidhe because a cock was not killed on the night of their birth, and of the mystic meaning of vicarious sacrifice; of people who had lain down to sleep unaware in a fairy ring and were foolish ever afterward—that is, as people say, foolish, but really wise, for they saw how things are; of homes built unknowingly across a fairy path where the sidhe take their journeys, and how ill luck followed the inhabitants until they moved, and of the strange penalties for living out of harmony with the little-known currents of the soul's life; of how blind men see more than others; of how a fool is one whose mind is so cleared of all futile commonplace traffic that it reflects untroubled and serene the stars and their courses; of how wisdom is folly, and life, death. All these things and many more did Timothy say in words and play in music on his pipes, and to all of them Moira gave her wide comprehending silence.

The best of all was on evenings when the stars came out first, and then as the two sat watching them from the Round Stone they suddenly began to pale, and the moon flashed into sight, rising swiftly over the mountain Moira called “The Hill o' Delights,” because it was from a wide, white door in it that the rushing, light-footed little people came out every evening when the twilight fell and the harsh endeavor of human life was stilled to peace. There was neither talk nor music on those evenings, but a silence full, like the lovely world about them, of unsaid, quivering joy. Sometimes Timothy would turn after such a long time of deep and cheering mutual knowledge of how fair were all things, and find Moira slipped away from beside him; but so impalpable was the companionship she gave him in the strange and sweet confusion of his thoughts that he did not feel himself alone, though she might be already deep in the pines behind him.

The girl grew taller, but the cool whiteness of her face was untinged by any flush of young maidenhood. At seventeen she was a slender sprite of a girl, to reach whose unearthly aloofness the warm human hands of her companions strained unavailing. Each winter she descended to the valley and to school and church, a silent, remote child, moving like one in a dream. And every spring she came back to the hill, to Timothy and his pipes, to the pines and the uplands, to the Round Stone and the white road in front of it. Ralph Wilcox, hearty, kindly son of his hearty, kindly parents, tried to speak to her long enough to make her seem real, but she was rarely in the house except during the day and a half of each week when her father was there; and on their casual encounters out of doors she melted from before his eyes like a pixie, knowing the hiding places and turns of his own land better than he. Sometimes he caught a glimpse of her afterward, regarding him steadily and curiously from a nook in a hillside, and once as she darted away she had dropped a handkerchief and turned her head in time to see him pick it up; but she did not slacken her pace, or speak to him then or at all.

She rarely spoke, even to Timothy, but this was no barrier between them. All the winter Timothy lived on the thoughts of the spring, and when the arbutus and Moira came back he poured out to her the strange treasures he had found in his heart. Scarcely to her, for she only gazed silent at the stars as he talked. Rather she seemed to unlock in him the rich stores of his own understanding and emotion. He marveled that he could ever have found the valley empty. He felt within him a swelling flood, ever renewed, of significance to fill all his world with a sweet and comforting meaning.

And so his red hair grew threaded with white, and his foolish, idle heart happier and happier as the years went on. Then, one midwinter day, Father Delancey climbed the hill to say that Timothy's sister's husband was dead, and that Timothy was sent for to take his place, hold the Nebraska claim, work the land, and be a father to his sister's children. Timothy was stunned with horror, but the unbending will of the never-contradicted parish priest bore him along without question.

“Sure, Tim, go! I tell you to! 'Tis the only thing to do! And 'twill be a man's work and earn ye many hours out of purgatory. An' 'twill be grand for ye, ye that never would have a family o' your own—here's the Blessed Virgin pushin' ye into one, ready-made. 'Twill be the makin' o' ye, 'twill make ye rale human, an' ye'll have no more time for star-gazin' an' such foolishness. Ye can find out what people are in the world for, instead keepin' yerself so outside o' things. Sure, yes, man, yes, I'll tell Moira ye said good-by to her, an'—yes, I give ye my word, and promise true and true, I'll lave ye now if she moves away or if any harm comes to her.”

IV

His grizzled hair was turned quite white when his sister kissed him good-by, fresh tears in her eyes, scarcely dry from the excitement of her youngest daughter's wedding. She had a moment of divination like his, and said sadly, “There's no use trying to thank ye, Timmy, words can't do it. If ye'd been anybody else, I cud ha' said ye got ye'r pay for all these long, hard years in the love the childer bear ye. That's the pay folks get for workin' an' livin' for others—but ye're not folks. Is't that ye're the seventh son? Is't that ye've second sight? Is't that—what is't that makes ye so far away? An' what is ye'r pay, Tim? Now that it's over and the children all safe and grown up, ye look yerself like a child that's done its lesson an' run out to play. Is't all just work or play with ye? Can't ye niver just live ?”

In truth her brother's eagerness to be away was scarcely concealed at all from the grateful, wistful Irish eyes about him. He was breathless with haste to be off. The long trip to New England was a never-ending nightmare of delay to him, and although he had planned for years to walk up the hill, his trembling old legs dragged in a slow progress maddening to his impatience. A farmer, driving by, offered him a lift, which he accepted gratefully, sitting strained far forward on the high seat. At a turn of the road he looked back and saw that he had passed the cluster of pines where Moira had laughed at him, and where he had felt so thick about him the thronging rush of his newly awakened perceptions of the finer meaning of things, the gay, sweet crowd of gentle little people.

He stopped the farmer and, leaping down from the high seat, he took his pipes under his arm and fairly ran up the little path. His rheumatic knee creaked a little, but the color came up hard in his tired old face as the twilight of the pines and their pungent, welcoming breath fell about him. He cast him down and buried his face in the rust-red dried needles. He did not weep, but from time to time a long sigh heaved his shoulders. Then he turned over and lay on his back, looking at the sunset-yellow sky through the green, thick-clustered needles, noticing how the light made each one glisten as though dipped in molten gold. His hand strayed out to his pipes, lying beside him with mute, gaping mouths. “The Gold o' the Glamour,” he murmured to himself, and as he broke the silence with the old tune faintly blown, he felt the wood peopled about him as of yore with twilight forms. Unseen bright eyes gazed at him from behind tree-trunks, and the branches were populous with invisible, kindly listeners. The very hush was symbolic of the consciousness of the wood that he was there again. There was none of the careless commonplace of rustling leaves, and snapping twigs, and indifferent, fearless bird-song. In the death-like still he felt life quivering and observant with a thousand innocent, curious, welcoming eyes.

When he had quavered through the last note he let the pipes fall and gazed about him with a smile, like a happy old child. The sun sank behind the mountain as he looked, and he pulled himself heavily up. His way to the farm lay over bare upland pastures where his feet, accustomed for years to the yielding prarie levels, stumbled and tripped among the loose stones. Twilight came on rapidly, so that he found himself several times walking blindly through fairy rings of fern. He crossed himself and bowed his head three times to the west, where the evening star now shone pale in the radiance of the glowing sky. Between two of the ridges he wandered into a bog where his feet, hot in their heavy boots, felt gratefully the oozing, cool brown water.

And then, as he stepped into the lane, dark with dense maple-trees and echoing faintly with the notes of the hermit thrush, he saw the light of the little house glimmer through the trees in so exactly the spot where his hungering eyes sought it that his heart gave a great hammering leap in his breast.

He knocked at the door, half doubtfully, for all his eagerness. It might be she lived elsewhere in the parish now. He had schooled himself to this thought so that it was no surprise, although a heavy disappointment, when the door was opened by a small dark man holding a sleeping baby on his arm. Timothy lowered his voice and the man gave a brief and hushed answer. He spoke in a strong French-Canadian accent. “Moira O'Donnell? I nevaire heard before. Go to ze house on ze hill—mebbe zey know—”

He closed the door, and, through the open window, Timothy saw him sit down, still holding the baby and looking at it as though the interrupting episode were already forgotten. The old man shivered with a passing eerie sense of being like a ghost knocking vainly at the doors of the living. He limped up the hill, and knocked on the kitchen door of the old Wilcox house. To his eyes, dilated with the wide dusk of the early evening, the windows seemed to blaze with light, and when the door was opened to him he shaded his eyes, blinking fast against the rays of a lamp held high in the hand of a round, little woman who looked at him with an impersonal kindness. His heart beat so he could not speak.

Suddenly from the past rang out his old name, the one he had almost lost in the dreary years of “Uncle Tim” which lay behind him.

“Why, Piper Tim!” cried the woman in a voice of exceeding warmth and affection. “Why, it's dear, dear, darling old Piper Tim come back to visit his old home. I knew ye in a minute by the pipes. Come in! Come in! There's not a soul livin' or dead that's welcomer in th' house of Moira Wilcox.”

The name blazed high through all the confusion of his swimming senses. To his blank look she returned a mellow laugh. “Why sure, Timmy darlint, hasn't anybody; iver told ye I was married? I'd have written ye myself, only that I knew you couldn't read it, and 'twas hard to tell through other people. Though, saints preserve us, 'tis long since I thought anything about it, one way or th' other. 'Tis as nat'ral as breathing now.”

She was pulling him into the warm, light room, taking his cap and pipes from him, and at the last she pushed him affectionately into a chair, and stood looking kindly at his pale agitation, her arms wide in a soft angle as she placed her hands on her rounded hips. “Oh, Timothy Moran, you darlint! Moira's that glad to see you! You mind me of the times when I was young and that's comin' to be long ago.”

She turned and stepped hastily to the stove from which rose an appetizing smell of frying ham. As she bent her plump, flushed face over this, the door opened and two dark-eyed little girls darted in. On seeing a stranger, they were frozen in mid-flight with the shy gaze of country children.

“Here, childer, 'tis Piper Tim come back to visit us. Piper Tim that I've told ye so many tales about—an' the gran' tunes he can play on his pipes. He can play with ye better nor I—he niver has aught else to do!” She smiled a wide, friendly smile on the old man as she said this, to show she meant no harm, and turned the slices of ham deftly so that they sent a puff of blue savory smoke up to her face. “Don't th' ham smell good, ye spalpeens, fresh from runnin' th' hills? Go an' wash ye'r faces an' hands and call ye'r father an' brothers. I've four,” she added proudly to the man by the table watching her with horrified eyes.

The fumes of the cooking made him sick, the close air suffocated him. He felt as though he were in some oppressive nightmare, and the talk at the supper-table penetrated but dully to his mind. The cordiality of Moira's husband, the shy, curious looks of the children at his pipes, even Moira's face rosy from brow to rounded chin, and beaming with indulgent, affectionate interest all melted together into a sort of indistinguishable confusion. This dull distress was rendered acute anguish by Moira's talk. In that hot, indoor place, with all those ignorant blank faces about her, she spoke of the pines and the upland bogs, of the fog and the Round Stone, and desecrated a sacred thing with every word.

It would have been a comfort to him if she had even talked with an apostate's yearning bitterness for his betrayed religion, if she had spoken harshly of their old, sweet folly; but she was all kindness and eager, willing reminiscence. Just as she spoke his name, his faery name of “Piper Tim,” in a tone that made it worse than “Uncle Tim,” so she blighted one after another of the old memories as she held them up in her firm, assured hands, and laughed gently at their oddity.

After supper as Tim sat again in the kitchen watching her do the evening work, the tides of revulsion rose strong within him. “We were a queer lot, an' no mistake, Piper Tim,” she said, scraping at a frying pan with a vigorous knife. “An' the childer are just like us. I've thried to tell them some of our old tales, but—I dun'no'—they've kind o' gone from me, now I've such a lot to do. I suppose you were up to the same always, with your nephews an' nieces out West. 'Twas fine for ye to have a family of your own that way, you that was always so lonely like.”

Timothy's shuddering horror of protest rose into words at this, incoherent words and bursts of indignation that took his breath away in gasps. “Moira! Moira! What are ye sayin' to me? Me wid a family! Anyone who's iver had th' quiet to listen to th' blessed little people—him to fill up his ears wid th' clatter of mortial tongues. No? Since I lift here I've had no minute o' peace—oh, Moira, th' country there—th' great flat hidjious country of thim—an' th' people like it—flat an' fruitful. An' oh, Moira, aroon, it's my heart breakin' in me, that now I've worked and worked there and done my mortial task an' had my purgatory before my time, an' I've come back to live again—that ye've no single welcomin' word to bid me stay.”

The loving Irish heart of the woman melted in a misunderstanding sympathy and remorse. “Why, poor Piper Tim, I didn't mean ye should go back to them or their country if ye like it better here. Ye're welcome every day of the year from now till judgment tramp. I only meant—why—seem' they were your own folks—and all, that ye'd sort o' taken to thim—the way most do, when it's their own blood.”

She flowed on in a stream of fumbling, warm-hearted, mistaken apology that sickened the old man's soul. When he finally rose for his great adventure, he spoke timidly, with a wretched foreknowledge of what her answer would be.

“Och, Piper Tim, 'tis real sweet of ye to think of it and ask me, an' I'd like fine to go. Sure, I've not been on the Round Stone of an evening—why, not since you went away I do believe! But Ralph's goin' to the grange meetin' to-night, an' one of th' childer is restless with a cough, and I think I'll not go. My feet get sort of sore-like, too, after bein' on them all day.”

V.

As he stepped out from the warm, brightly lighted room, the night seemed chill and black, but after a moment his eyes dilated and he saw the stars shining through the densely hanging maple leaves.

Up by the Round Stone the valley opened out beneath him. Restlessly he looked up and down the road and across the valley with a questing glance which did not show him what he sought. The night for all its dark corners had nothing in it for him beyond what lay openly before him. He put out his hand instinctively for his pipes, remembered that he had left them at the house, and sprang to his feet to return for them. Perhaps Moira would come out with him now. Perhaps the child had gone to sleep. The brief stay in the ample twilight of the hillside had given him a faint, momentary courage to appeal again to her against the narrow brightness of her prison.

Moira sat by the kitchen table, sewing, her smooth round face blooming like a rose in the light from the open door of the stove. Her kindly eyes beamed sweetly on the old man. “Ah, Piper Tim, ye're wise. 'Tis a damp night out for ye'r rheumatis. The fog risin' too, likely?”

The old piper went to her chair and stood looking at her with a fixed gaze, “Moira!” he said vehemently, “Moira O'Donnell that was, the stars are bright over the Round Stone, an' th' moon is risin' behind th' Hill o' Delights, and the first white puffs of incense are risin' from th' whirl-hole of th' river. I've come back for my pipes, and I'm goin' out to play to th' little people—an' oh, shall old Piper Tim go without Moira?”

He spoke with a glowing fervor like the leaping up of a dying candle. From the inexorably kind woman who smiled so friendly on him his heart recoiled and puffed itself out into darkness. She surveyed him with the wise, tender pity of a mother for a foolish, much-loved child. “Sure, 'tis th' same Piper Tim ye are!” she said cheerfully, laying down her work, “but, Lord save ye, Timmy darlint, Moira's grown up! There's no need for my pretendin' to play any more, is there, when I've got proper childer o' my own to keep it up. They are my little people—an' I don't have to have a quiet place to fancy them up out o' nothin'. They're real! An' they're takin' my place all over again. There's one—the youngest girl—the one that looks so like me as ye noticed—she's just such a one as I was. To-day only (she's seven to-morrow), she minded me of some old tales I had told her about the cruachan whistle for the sidhe on the seventh birthday, an' she'd been tryin' to make one, but I'd clean forgot how the criss-cross lines go. It made me think back on that evening when I was seven—maybe you've forgot, but you was sittin' on the Round Stone in th'——”

Timothy's sore heart rebelled at this last rifling of the shrine, and he made for the door. Moira's sweet solicitude held him for an instant in check. “Oh, Tim, ye'd best stay in an' warm your knee by the good fire. I've a pile of mendin' to do, and you'll tell me all about your family in th' West and how you farmed there. It'll be real cozy-like.”

Timothy uttered an outraged sound and snatching up his pipes fled out of the pleasant, low-ceilinged room, up the road, now white as chalk beneath the newly risen moon. At the Round Stone he sat down and, putting his pipes to his lips, he played resolutely through to the end “The Song of Angus to the Stars.” As the last, high, confident note died, he put his pipes down hastily, and dropped his face in his hands with a broken murmur of Gaelic lament.

When he looked abroad again, the valley was like a great opal, where the moon shot its rays into the transparent fog far below him. The road was white and the shadows black and one was no more devoid of mystery than the other.

The sky for all its stars hung above the valley like an empty bowl above an empty vessel, and in his heart he felt no swelling possibilities to fill this void. To the haggard old eyes the face of the world was like a dead thing, which did not return his gaze even with hostility, but blankly—a smooth, thin mask which hid behind it nothing at all.

He was startled by the sudden appearance of a dog from out of the shadows, a shaggy collie who trotted briskly down the road, stopping to roll a friendly, inquiring eye on his bent figure. His eyes followed the animal until it vanished in the shadows on the other side. After the sound of its padding footsteps was still, the old man's heart died within him at the silence.

He tried vainly to exorcise this anguish by naming it What was it? Why did he droop dully now that he was where he had so longed to be? Everything was as it had been, the valley, the clean white fog, tossing its waves up to him as he had dreamed of it in the arid days of Nebraska; the mountains closing in on him with the line of drooping peace he had never lost from before his eyes during the long, dreary years of exile. Only he was changed. His eye fell on his mud-caked boots, and his face contracted. “Oh, my! Oh, my!” he said aloud, like an anxious old child. “She couldn't ha' liked my tracking bog durt on to her clane kitchen floor!”

But as he sat brooding, his hand dropped heavily to the Round Stone and encountered a small object which he held up to view. It was a willow whistle of curious construction, with white lines criss-cross on it; and beside it lay a jackknife with a broken blade. The old man looked at it, absently at first, then with a start, and finally with a rush of joyful and exultant exclamations.

And afterward, quite tranquilly, with a shining face of peace, he played softly on his pipes, “The Call of the Sidhe to the Children.”

 
 
 

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