One winter evening an old knight in rusted chain-armour rode slowly
along the woody southern slope of Ben Bulben, watching the sun go
down in crimson clouds over the sea. His horse was tired, as after a
long journey, and he had upon his helmet the crest of no neighbouring
lord or king, but a small rose made of rubies that glimmered every
moment to a deeper crimson. His white hair fell in thin curls upon
his shoulders, and its disorder added to the melancholy of his face,
which was the face of one of those who have come but seldom into the
world, and always for its trouble, the dreamers who must do what they
dream, the doers who must dream what they do.
After gazing a while towards the sun, he let the reins fall upon the
neck of his horse, and, stretching out both arms towards the west, he
said, 'O Divine Rose of Intellectual Flame, let the gates of thy
peace be opened to me at last!' And suddenly a loud squealing began
in the woods some hundreds of yards further up the mountain side. He
stopped his horse to listen, and heard behind him a sound of feet and
of voices. 'They are beating them to make them go into the narrow
path by the gorge,' said someone, and in another moment a dozen
peasants armed with short spears had come up with the knight, and
stood a little apart from him, their blue caps in their hands. Where
do you go with the spears?' he asked; and one who seemed the leader
answered: 'A troop of wood-thieves came down from the hills a while
ago and carried off the pigs belonging to an old man who lives by
Glen Car Lough, and we turned out to go after them. Now that we know
they are four times more than we are, we follow to find the way they
have taken; and will presently tell our story to De Courcey, and if
he will not help us, to Fitzgerald; for De Courcey and Fitzgerald
have lately made a peace, and we do not know to whom we belong.'
'But by that time,' said the knight, 'the pigs will have been eaten.'
'A dozen men cannot do more, and it was not reasonable that the whole
valley should turn out and risk their lives for two, or for two dozen
'Can you tell me,' said the knight, 'if the old man to whom the pigs
belong is pious and true of heart?'
'He is as true as another and more pious than any, for he says a
prayer to a saint every morning before his breakfast.'
'Then it were well to fight in his cause,' said the knight, 'and if
you will fight against the wood-thieves I will take the main brunt of
the battle, and you know well that a man in armour is worth many like
these wood-thieves, clad in wool and leather.'
And the leader turned to his fellows and asked if they would take the
chance; but they seemed anxious to get back to their cabins.
'Are the wood-thieves treacherous and impious?'
'They are treacherous in all their dealings,' said a peasant, 'and no
man has known them to pray.'
'Then,' said the knight, 'I will give five crowns for the head of
every wood-thief killed by us in the fighting'; and he bid the leader
show the way, and they all went on together. After a time they came
to where a beaten track wound into the woods, and, taking this, they
doubled back upon their previous course, and began to ascend the
wooded slope of the mountains. In a little while the path grew very
straight and steep, and the knight was forced to dismount and leave
his horse tied to a tree-stem. They knew they were on the right
track: for they could see the marks of pointed shoes in the soft clay
and mingled with them the cloven footprints of the pigs. Presently
the path became still more abrupt, and they knew by the ending of the
cloven foot-prints that the thieves were carrying the pigs. Now and
then a long mark in the clay showed that a pig had slipped down, and
been dragged along for a little way. They had journeyed thus for
about twenty minutes, when a confused sound of voices told them that
they were coming up with the thieves. And then the voices ceased, and
they understood that they had been overheard in their turn. They
pressed on rapidly and cautiously, and in about five minutes one of
them caught sight of a leather jerkin half hidden by a hazel-bush. An
arrow struck the knight's chain-armour, but glanced off harmlessly,
and then a flight of arrows swept by them with the buzzing sound of
great bees. They ran and climbed, and climbed and ran towards the
thieves, who were now all visible standing up among the bushes with
their still quivering bows in their hands: for they had only their
spears and they must at once come hand to hand. The knight was in the
front and smote down first one and then another of the wood-thieves.
The peasants shouted, and, pressing on, drove the wood-thieves before
them until they came out on the flat top of the mountain, and there
they saw the two pigs quietly grubbing in the short grass, so they
ran about them in a circle, and began to move back again towards the
narrow path: the old knight coming now the last of all, and striking
down thief after thief. The peasants had got no very serious hurts
among them, for he had drawn the brunt of the battle upon himself, as
could well be seen from the bloody rents in his armour; and when they
came to the entrance of the narrow path he bade them drive the pigs
down into the valley, while he stood there to guard the way behind
them. So in a moment he was alone, and, being weak with loss of
blood, might have been ended there and then by the wood-thieves he
had beaten off, had fear not made them begone out of sight in a great
An hour passed, and they did not return; and now the knight could
stand on guard no longer, but had to lie down upon the grass. A half-
hour more went by, and then a young lad with what appeared to be a
number of cock's feathers stuck round his hat, came out of the path
behind him, and began to move about among the dead thieves, cutting
their heads off, Then he laid the heads in a heap before the knight,
and said: 'O great knight, I have been bid come and ask you for the
crowns you promised for the heads: five crowns a head. They bid me
tell you that they have prayed to God and His Mother to give you a
long life, but that they are poor peasants, and that they would have
the money before you die. They told me this over and over for fear I
might forget it, and promised to beat me if I did.'
The knight raised himself upon his elbow, and opening a bag that hung
to his belt, counted out the five crowns for each head. There were
thirty heads in all.
'O great knight,' said the lad, 'they have also bid me take all care
of you, and light a fire, and put this ointment upon your wounds.'
And he gathered sticks and leaves together, and, flashing his flint
and steel under a mass of dry leaves, had made a very good blaze.
Then, drawing of the coat of mail, he began to anoint the wounds: but
he did it clumsily, like one who does by rote what he had been told.
The knight motioned him to stop, and said: 'You seem a good lad.'
'I would ask something of you for myself.'
'There are still a few crowns,' said the knight; 'shall I give them
'O no,' said the lad. 'They would be no good to me. There is only one
thing that I care about doing, and I have no need of money to do it.
I go from village to village and from hill to hill, and whenever I
come across a good cock I steal him and take him into the woods, and
I keep him there under a basket until I get another good cock, and
then I set them to fight. The people say I am an innocent, and do not
do me any harm, and never ask me to do any work but go a message now
and then. It is because I am an innocent that they send me to get the
crowns: anyone else would steal them; and they dare not come back
themselves, for now that you are not with them they are afraid of the
wood-thieves. Did you ever hear how, when the wood-thieves are
christened, the wolves are made their god-fathers, and their right
arms are not christened at all?'
'If you will not take these crowns, my good lad, I have nothing for
you, I fear, unless you would have that old coat of mail which I
shall soon need no more.'
'There was something I wanted: yes, I remember now,' said the lad. 'I
want you to tell me why you fought like the champions and giants in
the stories and for so little a thing. Are you indeed a man like us?
Are you not rather an old wizard who lives among these hills, and
will not a wind arise presently and crumble you into dust?'
'I will tell you of myself,' replied the knight, 'for now that I am
the last of the fellowship, 'I may tell all and witness for God. Look
at the Rose of Rubies on my helmet, and see the symbol of my life and
of my hope.' And then he told the lad this story, but with always
more frequent pauses; and, while he told it, the Rose shone a deep
blood-colour in the firelight, and the lad stuck the cock's
feathers in the earth in front of him, and moved them about as though
he made them actors in the play.
'I live in a land far from this, and was one of the Knights of St.
John,' said the old man; 'but I was one of those in the Order who
always longed for more arduous labours in the service of the Most
High. At last there came to us a knight of Palestine, to whom the
truth of truths had been revealed by God Himself. He had seen a great
Rose of Fire, and a Voice out of the Rose had told him how men would
turn from the light of their own hearts, and bow down before outer
order and outer fixity, and that then the light would cease, and none
escape the curse except the foolish good man who could not, and the
passionate wicked man who would not, think. Already, the Voice told
him, the wayward light of the heart was shining out upon the world to
keep it alive, with a less clear lustre, and that, as it paled, a
strange infection was touching the stars and the hills and the grass
and the trees with corruption, and that none of those who had seen
clearly the truth and the ancient way could enter into the Kingdom of
God, which is in the Heart of the Rose, if they stayed on willingly
in the corrupted world; and so they must prove their anger against
the Powers of Corruption by dying in the service of the Rose of God.
While the Knight of Palestine was telling us these things we seemed
to see in a vision a crimson Rose spreading itself about him, so that
he seemed to speak out of its heart, and the air was filled with
fragrance. By this we knew that it was the very Voice of God which
spoke to us by the knight, and we gathered about him and bade him
direct us in all things, and teach us how to obey the Voice. So he
bound us with an oath, and gave us signs and words whereby we might
know each other even after many years, and he appointed places of
meeting, and he sent us out in troops into the world to seek good
causes, and die in doing battle for them. At first we thought to die
more readily by fasting to death in honour of some saint; but this he
told us was evil, for we did it for the sake of death, and thus took
out of the hands of God the choice of the time and manner of our
death, and by so doing made His power the less. We must choose our
service for its excellence, and for this alone, and leave it to God
to reward us at His own time and in His own manner. And after this he
compelled us to eat always two at a table to watch each other lest we
fasted unduly, for some among us said that if one fasted for a love
of the holiness of saints and then died, the death would be
acceptable. And the years passed, and one by one my fellows died in
the Holy Land, or in warring upon the evil princes of the earth, or
in clearing the roads of robbers; and among them died the knight of
Palestine, and at last I was alone. I fought in every cause where the
few contended against the many, and my hair grew white, and a
terrible fear lest I had fallen under the displeasure of God came
upon me. But, hearing at last how this western isle was fuller of
wars and rapine than any other land, I came hither, and I have found
the thing I sought, and, behold! I am filled with a great joy.'
Thereat he began to sing in Latin, and, while he sang, his voice grew
fainter and fainter. Then his eyes closed, and his lips fell apart,
and the lad knew he was dead. 'He has told me a good tale,' he said,
'for there was fighting in it, but I did not understand much of it,
and it is hard to remember so long a story.'
And, taking the knight's sword, he began to dig a grave in the soft
clay. He dug hard, and a faint light of dawn had touched his hair and
he had almost done his work when a cock crowed in the valley below.
'Ah,' he said, 'I must have that bird'; and he ran down the narrow
path to the valley.