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The Wisdom Of The King

THE High-Queen of the Island of
Woods had died in child-birth, and her
child was put to nurse, with a woman who
lived in a hut of mud and wicker, within
the border of the wood. One night the
woman sat rocking the cradle, and pondering
over the beauty of the child, and praying
that the gods might grant him wisdom
equal to his beauty. There came a knock
at the door, and she got up, not a little
wondering, for the nearest neighbours were
in the dun of the High-King a mile away;
and the night was now late. 'Who is
knocking?' she cried, and a thin voice
answered, ` Open! for I am a crone of the
grey hawk, and I come from the darkness
of the great wood.' In terror she drew
back the bolt, and a grey-clad woman, of
a great age, and of a height more than
human, came in and stood by the head of
the cradle. The nurse shrank back against
the wall, unable to take her eyes from the
woman, for she saw by the gleaming of the
firelight that the feathers of the grey hawk
were upon her head instead of hair. But
the child slept, and the fire danced, for the
one was too ignorant and the other too full
of gaiety to know what a dreadful being
stood there. ' Open ! ' cried another voice,
~ for I am a crone of the grey hawk, and I
watch over his ncst in the darkness of the
great wood.' The nurse opened the door
again, though her fingers could scarce hold
the bolts for trembling, and another grey
woman, not less old than the other, and
with like feathers instead of hair, came in
and stood by the first. In a little, came a
third grey woman, and after her a fourth,
and then another and another and another,
until the hut was full of their immense
forms. They stood a long time in
perfect silence and stillness, for they were
of those whom the dropping of the sand
has never troubled, but at last one muttered
in a low thin voice: ' Sisters, I knew him
far away by the redness of his heart under
his silver skin'; and then another spoke:
'Sisters, I knew him because his heart
fluttered like a bird under a net of silver
cords'; and then another took up the
word: ' Sisters, I knew him because his
heart sang like a bird that had forgotten
the silver cords.' And after that they Bang
together, those who wcrc nearest rocking
the cradle with long wrinkled fingers; and
their voices were now tender and caressing,
now like the wind blowing in the
great wood, and this was their song:

Out of sight is out of mind:
Long have man and woman-kind
Heavy of will and light of mood,
Taken away our wheaten food,
Taken away our Altar stone;
Hail and rain and thunder alone,
And red hearts we turn to grey,
Are true till Time gutter away.

When the song had died out, the crone
who had first spoken, said, ~ Nothing now
remains but that a drop of our blood be
mixed into his blood.' And she Scratched
her arm with the sharp point of a spindle,
which she had made the nurse bring to
her, and let a drop of blood, grey as the
mist, fall upon the lips of the child; and
passed out into the darkness. Then the
others passed out in silence one by one;
and all the while the child had not opened
his pink eyelids or the firc ceascd to dance,
for the one was too ignorant, and the other
too full of gaiety to know how great the
beings were that had bent over a cradle.
When the crones were gone, the nurse
came to her courage again, and hurried to
the dun of the High-King, and cried out
in the midst of the assembly hall that the
Shee, whether for good or evil she knew
not, had bent over the child that night;
and the king and his poets and men of law,
and his hunts men, and his cook, and his
chief warriors went with her to the hut and
gathered about the cradle, and were as
noisy as magpies, and the child sat up and
looked at them.
Two years passed over, and the king
died fighting against the People of the Bag;
and the poets and the men of law ruled in
the name of the Child, but looked to see
him become the master himself before
long, for no one had seen so wise a
child, and tales of his endless questions
about the household of the gods and the
making of the world went hither and
thither among the wicl;er houses of the
poor. I~vcrythillg had becn well, but
for a miracle that began to trouble all
men; and all women, who, indeed, talked
of it without ceasing. The feathers of the
grey hawk had begun to grow in the child's
hair, and though his nurse cut them con-
tinually, it needed but a little while and
they were more numerous than ever. This
had not been a matter of great moment,
for miracles were a little thing in those
days, but for an ancient law of Eri that
none who had any blemish of body could
sit upon the throne; and as a grey hawk
was a wild thing of the air which had
never sat at the board, or listened to the
songs of the poets in the light of the fire,
it was not possible to think of one in whose
hair its feathers grew as other than marred
and blasted; nor could the people separate
from their admiration of the wisdom that
grew in him a horror as at one of unhuman
blood. Yet all were resolved that he
should reign, for they had suffered much
from foolish kings and their own disorders,
and moreover they desired to watch out
the spectacle of his days; and no one had
any other fear but that his great wisdom
might bid him obey the law, and call Eocha
of the Plain of Towers, who had but a
common mind, to reign in his stead.
When the child was seven years old
the poets and the men of law were called
together by the chief poet, and all these
matters weighed and considered. The
child had already seen that those about
him had hair only, and, though they had
told him that they too had had feathers
but had lost them because of a sin com-
mitted by their forefathers, they knew that
he would learn the truth when he began
to wander into the country round about.
After much consideration they decreed a
new law commanding every one upon pain
of death to mingle by a subtlety of art the
feathers of the grey hawk into his hair;
and they sent men with nets and slings,
for as yet the bow was not invented, into
the countries round about to gather a suf-
ficiency of feathers. They decreed also
that any who told the truth to the child
should be flung from a cliff into the sea.
The years passed, and the child grew
from childhood into boyhood and from
boyhood into manhood, and from being
curious about all things he became busy
with strange and subtle thoughts which
came to him in dreams, and with dis-
tinctions between things long held the
same and with the resemblance of things
long held different. Multitudes came from
other lands to sec him and to ask his
counsel~ but there were guards set at the
frontiers~ who compelled all that came,
to wear the feathers of the grey hawk
in their hair. While they listened to him
his words seemed to make all darkness
light and filled their hearts like music;
but, alas, when they returned to their own
lands his words seemed far off, and what
they could remember too strange and
subtle to help thcm to live out their hasty
days. A number indeed did live differ-
ently afterwards, but their new life was
less excellent than the old: some among
them had long served a good cause, but
when they heard him praise it and their
labour, they returned to their own lands
to find what they had loved less lovable
and their arm lighter in the battle, for
he had taught them how little a hair
divides the false and true; others again,
who had served no cause, but wrought in
peace the welfare of their own households,
when he had expounded the meaning of
their purpose found their bones softer and
their will less ready for toil, for he had
shown them greater purposes; and numbers
of the young, when they had heard him
upon all these things, remembered certain
words that became like a fire in their
hearts, and made all kindly joys and traffic
between man and man as nothing, and went
different ways, but all into vague regret.
When any asked him concerning the
common things of life; disputes about the
mear of a territory, or about the straying
of cattle, or about the pcnalty of blood;
he would turn to those nearest him for
advice; but this was held to be from
courtesy, for none knew that these matters
were hidden from him, by thoughts and
dreams that filled his mind like the
marching and counter-marching of armies.
Far less could any know that his heart
wandered lost amid throngs of overcoming
thoughts and dreams, shuddering at its
own consuming solitude.
among those who came to look at him
and to listen to him was the daughter of a
little king who lived a great way off; and
when he saw her he loved, for shc was
beautiful~ with a strange and pale beauty
unlike the women of his land; but Dana,
the great mother, had decreed her a heart
that was but as the heart of others, and
when she considered the mystery of the
hawk feathers she was troubled with a
great horror. He called her to him when
the assembly was over and told her of
her beauty, and praised her simply and
frankly as though she were a fablc of the
bards; and he asked her humbly to give
him her love, for he was only subtle in his
dreams. Overwhelmed with his greatness,
she half consented, and yet half refused,
for she longed to marry some warrior who
could carry her over a mountain in his
arms. Day by day the king gave her
gifts; cups with ears of gold and find-
rinny wrought by the craftsmen of distant
lands; cloth from over sea, which, though
woven with curious figures, seemed to her
less beautiful than the bright cloth woven
in the Island of Woods; and still she was
ever between a smile and a frown; between
yielding and withholding. He laid down
his wisdom at her feet, and told how the
heroes when they die return to the world
and begin their labour anew; how the
kind and mirthful Children of Dana drove
out the huge and gloomy and misshapen
People from under the Sea; and how the
great Moods arc alonc immortal, and the;
creators of mortal things; and how every
Mood is a being that wcars, to mortal eyes,
the shape of Fair-brows, who dwells, as a
salmon, in the floods; or of the Dagda,
whose cauldron is never empty; or of Lir,
whose children wail upon the waters; or
of Angus, whose kisses were changed into
birds; or of Len, the goldsmith, from
whose furnace break rainbows and fiery
dew; or of some other of the children of
~)ana: and still she half refused, and still
he hoped, for he could not believe that a
beauty so much like wisdom could hide a
common heart.
~ There was a tall young man in the
dun who had yellow hair, and was skilled
in wrestling and in the training of horses;
and one day when the king walked in
the orchard, which was between the foss
and the forest, he heard his voice among
the salley bushes which hid the waters
of the foss. ~ My blossom,' it said, ' I
hate them for making you weave these
dingy feathers into your beautiful hair, and
all that the bird of prey upon the throne
may sleep easy o' nights'; and then the
low, musical voice he loved answered:
' My hair is not beautiful like yours; and
now that I have plucked away the feathers
I will put my hands through it, thus, and
thus, and thus; for it casts no shadow of
terror and darkness upon my heart.' Then
the king remembered many things that
he had forgotten without understanding
them, doubtful words of his poets and his
men of law, doubts that he had reasoned
away, his own continual solitude; and he
called the lovers to him in a trembling
voice. They came from among the salley
bushes and threw themselves at his feet
and prayed for pardon, and he stooped
down and plucked the feathers out of the
hair of the woman and then turned away
towards the dun without a word. He
strode into the hall of assembly, and
having gathered his poets and his men
of law about him, stood upon the dais
and spoke in a loud, clear voice: ' Men
of law, why did you make me sin against
the laws of Eri ? Men of verse, why did
you make me sin against the sccrecy
of wisdom, for law was made by man
for the welfare of man, but wisdom the
gods have made, and no man shall live by
its light, for it and the hail and the rain
and the thunder follow a way that is deadly
to mortal things. Men of law and men of
verse, live according to your kind, and call
Eocha of the Plain of Towers to reign
over you, for I set out to find my kindred.'

He then came down among them, and
drew out of the hair of first one and then
another the feathers of the grey hawk,
and, having scattered them over the rushes
upon the floor, passed out, and none dared
to follow him, for his eyes gleamed like
the eyes of the birds of prey; and no man
saw him again or heard his voice. Some
believed that he found his eternal abode
among the demons, and some that he dwelt
henceforth with the dark and dreadful god-
desses, who sit all night about the pools
in the forest watching the constellations
rising and setting in those desolate

William Butler Yeats