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A Knight of the Sheep

Away to the north of Ben Bulben and Cope's mountain lives "a strong
farmer," a knight of the sheep they would have called him in the Gaelic
days. Proud of his descent from one of the most fighting clans of the
Middle Ages, he is a man of force alike in his words and in his deeds.
There is but one man that swears like him, and this man lives far away
upon the mountain. "Father in Heaven, what have I done to deserve
this?" he says when he has lost his pipe; and no man but he who lives
on the mountain can rival his language on a fair day over a bargain. He
is passionate and abrupt in his movements, and when angry tosses his
white beard about with his left hand.

One day I was dining with him when the servant-maid announced a
certain Mr. O'Donnell. A sudden silence fell upon the old man and upon
his two daughters. At last the eldest daughter said somewhat severely
to her father, "Go and ask him to come in and dine." The old man went
out, and then came in looking greatly relieved, and said, "He says he
will not dine with us." "Go out," said the daughter, "and ask him into
the back parlour, and give him some whiskey." Her father, who had just
finished his dinner, obeyed sullenly, and I heard the door of the back
parlour--a little room where the daughters sat and sewed during the
evening--shut to behind the men. The daughter then turned to me and
said, "Mr. O'Donnell is the tax-gatherer, and last year he raised our
taxes, and my father was very angry, and when he came, brought him into
the dairy, and sent the dairy-woman away on a message, and then swore
at him a great deal. 'I will teach you, sir,' O'Donnell replied, 'that
the law can protect its officers'; but my father reminded him that he
had no witness. At last my father got tired, and sorry too, and said he
would show him a short way home. When they were half-way to the main
road they came on a man of my father's who was ploughing, and this
somehow brought back remembrance of the wrong. He sent the man away on
a message, and began to swear at the tax-gatherer again. When I heard
of it I was disgusted that he should have made such a fuss over a
miserable creature like O'Donnell; and when I heard a few weeks ago
that O'Donnell's only son had died and left him heart-broken, I
resolved to make my father be kind to him next time he came."

She then went out to see a neighbour, and I sauntered towards the back
parlour. When I came to the door I heard angry voices inside. The two
men were evidently getting on to the tax again, for I could hear them
bandying figures to and fro. I opened the door; at sight of my face the
farmer was reminded of his peaceful intentions, and asked me if I knew
where the whiskey was. I had seen him put it into the cupboard, and was
able therefore to find it and get it out, looking at the thin, grief-
struck face of the tax-gatherer. He was rather older than my friend,
and very much more feeble and worn, and of a very different type. He
was not like him, a robust, successful man, but rather one of those
whose feet find no resting-place upon the earth. I recognized one of
the children of reverie, and said, "You are doubtless of the stock of
the old O'Donnells. I know well the hole in the river where their
treasure lies buried under the guard of a serpent with many heads."
"Yes, sur," he replied, "I am the last of a line of princes."

We then fell to talking of many commonplace things, and my friend did
not once toss up his beard, but was very friendly. At last the gaunt
old tax-gatherer got up to go, and my friend said, "I hope we will have
a glass together next year." "No, no," was the answer, "I shall be dead
next year." "I too have lost sons," said the other in quite a gentle
voice. "But your sons were not like my son." And then the two men
parted, with an angry flush and bitter hearts, and had I not cast
between them some common words or other, might not have parted, but
have fallen rather into an angry discussion of the value of their dead
sons. If I had not pity for all the children of reverie I should have
let them fight it out, and would now have many a wonderful oath to

The knight of the sheep would have had the victory, for no soul that
wears this garment of blood and clay can surpass him. He was but once
beaten; and this is his tale of how it was. He and some farm hands were
playing at cards in a small cabin that stood against the end of a big
barn. A wicked woman had once lived in this cabin. Suddenly one of the
players threw down an ace and began to swear without any cause. His
swearing was so dreadful that the others stood up, and my friend said,
"All is not right here; there is a spirit in him." They ran to the door
that led into the barn to get away as quickly as possible. The wooden
bolt would not move, so the knight of the sheep took a saw which stood
against the wall near at hand, and sawed through the bolt, and at once
the door flew open with a bang, as though some one had been holding it,
and they fled through.

William Butler Yeats