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The Heart of the Spring

A very old man, whose face was almost as fleshless as the foot of a
bird, sat meditating upon the rocky shore of the flat and hazel-
covered isle which fills the widest part of the Lough Gill. A russet-
faced boy of seventeen years sat by his side, watching the swallows
dipping for flies in the still water. The old man was dressed in
threadbare blue velvet, and the boy wore a frieze coat and a blue
cap, and had about his neck a rosary of blue beads. Behind the two,
and half hidden by trees, was a little monastery. It had been burned
down a long while before by sacrilegious men of the Queen's party,
but had been roofed anew with rushes by the boy, that the old man
might find shelter in his last days. He had not set his spade,
however, into the garden about it, and the lilies and the roses of
the monks had spread out until their confused luxuriancy met and
mingled with the narrowing circle of the fern. Beyond the lilies and
the roses the ferns were so deep that a child walking among them
would be hidden from sight, even though he stood upon his toes; and
beyond the fern rose many hazels and small oak trees.

'Master,' said the boy, 'this long fasting, and the labour of
beckoning after nightfall with your rod of quicken wood to the beings
who dwell in the waters and among the hazels and oak-trees, is too
much for your strength. Rest from all this labour for a little, for
your hand seemed more heavy upon my shoulder and your feet less
steady under you to-day than I have known them. Men say that you are
older than the eagles, and yet you will not seek the rest that
belongs to age.' He spoke in an eager, impulsive way, as though his
heart were in the words and thoughts of the moment; and the old man
answered slowly and deliberately, as though his heart were in distant
days and distant deeds.

'I will tell you why I have not been able to rest,' he said. 'It is
right that you should know, for you have served me faithfully these
five years and more, and even with affection, taking away thereby a
little of the doom of loneliness which always falls upon the wise.
Now, too, that the end of my labour and the triumph of my hopes is at
hand, it is the more needful for you to have this knowledge.'

'Master, do not think that I would question you. It is for me to keep
the fire alight, and the thatch close against the rain, and strong,
lest the wind blow it among the trees; and it is for me to take the
heavy books from the shelves, and to lift from its corner the great
painted roll with the names of the Sidhe, and to possess the while an
incurious and reverent heart, for right well I know that God has made
out of His abundance a separate wisdom for everything which lives,
and to do these things is my wisdom.'

'You are afraid,' said the old man, and his eyes shone with a
momentary anger.

'Sometimes at night,' said the boy, 'when you are reading, with the
rod of quicken wood in your hand, I look out of the door and see, now
a great grey man driving swine among the hazels, and now many little
people in red caps who come out of the lake driving little white cows
before them. I do not fear these little people so much as the grey
man; for, when they come near the house, they milk the cows, and they
drink the frothing milk, and begin to dance; and I know there is good
in the heart that loves dancing; but I fear them for all that. And I
fear the tall white-armed ladies who come out of the air, and move
slowly hither and thither, crowning themselves with the roses or with
the lilies, and shaking about their living hair, which moves, for so
I have heard them tell each other, with the motion of their thoughts,
now spreading out and now gathering close to their heads. They have
mild, beautiful faces, but, Aengus, son of Forbis, I fear all these
beings, I fear the people of Sidhe, and I fear the art which draws
them about us.'

'Why,' said the old man, 'do you fear the ancient gods who made the
spears of your father's fathers to be stout in battle, and the little
people who came at night from the depth of the lakes and sang among
the crickets upon their hearths? And in our evil day they still watch
over the loveliness of the earth. But I must tell you why I have
fasted and laboured when others would sink into the sleep of age, for
without your help once more I shall have fasted and laboured to no
good end. When you have done for me this last thing, you may go and
build your cottage and till your fields, and take some girl to wife,
and forget the ancient gods. I have saved all the gold and silver
pieces that were given to me by earls and knights and squires for
keeping them from the evil eye and from the love-weaving enchantments
of witches, and by earls' and knights' and squires' ladies for
keeping the people of the Sidhe from making the udders of their
cattle fall dry, and taking the butter from their churns. I have
saved it all for the day when my work should be at an end, and now
that the end is at hand you shall not lack for gold and silver pieces
enough to make strong the roof-tree of your cottage and to keep
cellar and larder full. I have sought through all my life to find the
secret of life. I was not happy in my youth, for I knew that it would
pass; and I was not happy in my manhood, for I knew that age was
coming; and so I gave myself, in youth and manhood and age, to the
search for the Great Secret. I longed for a life whose abundance
would fill centuries, I scorned the life of fourscore winters. I
would be--nay, I _will_ be!--like the Ancient Gods of the land.
I read in my youth, in a Hebrew manuscript I found in a Spanish
monastery, that there is a moment after the Sun has entered the Ram
and before he has passed the Lion, which trembles with the Song of
the Immortal Powers, and that whosoever finds this moment and listens
to the Song shall become like the Immortal Powers themselves; I came
back to Ireland and asked the fairy men, and the cow-doctors, if they
knew when this moment was; but though all had heard of it, there was
none could find the moment upon the hour-glass. So I gave myself to
magic, and spent my life in fasting and in labour that I might bring
the Gods and the Fairies to my side; and now at last one of the
Fairies has told me that the moment is at hand. One, who wore a red
cap and whose lips were white with the froth of the new milk,
whispered it into my ear. Tomorrow, a little before the close of the
first hour after dawn, I shall find the moment, and then I will go
away to a southern land and build myself a palace of white marble
amid orange trees, and gather the brave and the beautiful about me,
and enter into the eternal kingdom of my youth. But, that I may hear
the whole Song, I was told by the little fellow with the froth of the
new milk on his lips, that you must bring great masses of green
boughs and pile them about the door and the window of my room; and
you must put fresh green rushes upon the floor, and cover the table
and the rushes with the roses and the lilies of the monks. You must
do this to-night, and in the morning at the end of the first hour
after dawn, you must come and find me.'

'Will you be quite young then?' said the boy.

'I will be as young then as you are, but now I am still old and
tired, and you must help me to my chair and to my books.'

When the boy had left Aengus son of Forbis in his room, and had
lighted the lamp which, by some contrivance of the wizard's, gave
forth a sweet odour as of strange flowers, he went into the wood and
began cutting green boughs from the hazels, and great bundles of
rushes from the western border of the isle, where the small rocks
gave place to gently sloping sand and clay. It was nightfall before
he had cut enough for his purpose, and well-nigh midnight before he
had carried the last bundle to its place, and gone back for the roses
and the lilies. It was one of those warm, beautiful nights when
everything seems carved of precious stones. Sleuth Wood away to the
south looked as though cut out of green beryl, and the waters that
mirrored them shone like pale opal. The roses he was gathering were
like glowing rubies, and the lilies had the dull lustre of pearl.
Everything had taken upon itself the look of something imperishable,
except a glow-worm, whose faint flame burnt on steadily among the
shadows, moving slowly hither and thither, the only thing that seemed
alive, the only thing that seemed perishable as mortal hope. The boy
gathered a great armful of roses and lilies, and thrusting the glow-
worm among their pearl and ruby, carried them into the room, where
the old man sat in a half-slumber. He laid armful after armful upon
the floor and above the table, and then, gently closing the door,
threw himself upon his bed of rushes, to dream of a peaceful manhood
with his chosen wife at his side, and the laughter of children in his
ears. At dawn he rose, and went down to the edge of the lake, taking
the hour-glass with him. He put some bread and a flask of wine in the
boat, that his master might not lack food at the outset of his
journey, and then sat down to wait until the hour from dawn had gone
by. Gradually the birds began to sing, and when the last grains of
sand were falling, everything suddenly seemed to overflow with their
music. It was the most beautiful and living moment of the year; one
could listen to the spring's heart beating in it. He got up and went
to find his master. The green boughs filled the door, and he had to
make a way through them. When he entered the room the sunlight was
falling in flickering circles on floor and walls and table, and
everything was full of soft green shadows. But the old man sat
clasping a mass of roses and lilies in his arms, and with his head
sunk upon his breast. On the table, at his left hand, was a leathern
wallet full of gold and silver pieces, as for a journey, and at his
right hand was a long staff. The boy touched him and he did not move.
He lifted the hands but they were quite cold, and they fell heavily.

'It were better for him,' said the lad, 'to have told his beads and
said his prayers like another, and not to have spent his days in
seeking amongst the Immortal Powers what he could have found in his
own deeds and days had he willed. Ah, yes, it were better to have
said his prayers and kissed his beads!' He looked at the threadbare
blue velvet, and he saw it was covered with the pollen of the
flowers, and while he was looking at it a thrush, who had alighted
among the boughs that were piled against the window, began to sing.

William Butler Yeats