Boys' Cuchulain - Eleanor Hull

The Up-Bringing of Deirdre

As soon as she was weaned, King Conor took the child away from her own parents, as was the custom in those olden days, and put her out to foster with a nurse, Levarcam, a wise and skilful dame, who told the King from day to day how Deirdre fared. And for the first seven years Deirdre grew up within the royal household, petted and loved by all, and she was richly fed and robed in silk, and nourished like a princess, for all in the palace knew that this young lovely child was destined to be mated with their king. Often she spent her days upon the playing fields, and watched the boy-corps practising their sports, and joined their games and laughed with glee like any other child. Thus happily and gaily passed the years for Deirdre, till one day when she was playing ball among the little lads, the King came down to watch their play. He saw how like a flower Deirdre grew, half like the opening daisy, pink and white, half like the slender hairbell on its stem, graceful and delicate; and though he was an old man, and had been a widower for now many years, and the child but a babe of seven years, a sudden jealousy smote at his aged heart. He saw the girl surrounded by the lads, who tossed the ball into her little lap or into her small apron held out to catch it as it fell. And every time she caught it, her ringing childish laugh broke out, and all the boys cried,

"Well, caught, O Deirdre; bravely caught, our little Queen!" For to them all, it was well-known that this small child was kept by Conor for himself, to share his throne and home; so oft in play they called her "Little Queen."

Then Conor called his Druid Caffa to him, and he said, "Too long we leave this child at liberty among the chieftain's sons. She must henceforth be kept apart and quite forget that there are younger men than you or me. If she grows up among these lads, most certainly the day will come when she will wish to wed some chief of her own age. See, even now, the lads bend to her will; she rules them like a queen indeed, and gladly they obey her. When she is grown to maidenhood, small chance for me, an aged man, when comes the time to woo."

"The King woos not," said Caffa, "he commands, and none dare disobey." "Still I would rather have a willing bride," the King replied; "I want no girl to be my royal mate who craves and hankers for some other man among my subjects. She shall come to tme of her own free will, because she knows no other man but me. She shall not even know what kind of thing a man may be, for I will shut her up apart from men, and, save yourself and me, she shall not ever see a manly face." "The King commands," said Caffa, slowly, "and it must be done as he desires. But yet I fear the maid will pine in her captivity. The bride you wed will be a lily pale as death, and not a maiden in her blooming loveliness."

"She shall have space and air and garden-ground," the King replied, "only she shall not ever see a human face, save yours and mine, and nurse Levarcam's."

So for the girl he built a place apart, far off from Emain in a lonely dell, surrounded by a wood. A simple stately house was reared, surrounded by an orchard of rare fruits. Behind the house a garden and a piece of barren moor, and through the wood a gently-flowing stream that wandered amid carpets of bright flowers. And all seemed fair enough, but round the place he built a mighty wall, so high that none could climb it, and a moat ran round within. Four savage man-hounds sent by Conor were on constant guard, watching on every side by night and day, so that no living thing could enter or pass out, save with the knowledge of Levarcam.

And for a time the child was happy, for Levarcam, the wise woman, taught her all she knew. She taught her how each bird sings to its mate, each different note of thrush or cuckoo or the soaring lark; she taught her of the plants that spring towards heaven, their roots deep hidden in the yielding soil, and of their names and uses, and the way they fructified and sent out shoots, and of the fruits they bore. And in the solemn night, they went abroad and watched the motion of the stars, and marked the wandering planets how they carved out their own path among the rest, and all the changes of the moon the maiden knew, and how to calculate the time of day by shadows on the grass. There was no bird upon the spray, nor herb among the plants, nor star in heaven, but Deirdre had a name for each and all.

And ever and anon, King Conor came and sat with her and talked, and brought her gifts to while away the time; and because the days were long and passed one like the other without any change, she liked his coming, and would call him "Father," and make tales for him, and sing her songs and show the little garden she had made herself alone.

And Deirdre grew up tall and stately as the sapling of the forest, and lithe as the green moorland rush that bows before the wind. Of all the women of the world was Deirdre the gentlest and best, lovely of form and lovely in her mind; light as the hind that leaps upon the hill, and white and shapely as the snowy swan. But though they tended her, and fed her with the best, the maiden drooped and pined. And on a day Levarcam said, "What ails thee, girl? Why is thy face so pale, thy step so slow? Why dost thou sigh and mope?" And Deirdre said, "I know not, nurse, what ails me; but I think I should be well if once again I saw the boys upon the playing fields, and heard their shouts, and tossed the ball with them."

"Fie, fie," replied the nurse, "'tis seven full years since on the green you played at ball. A child of but seven years were you at that time, and now full fourteen years have come and gone, and you are growing into maidenhood." "Seven bitter years," said Deirdre, "since I beheld the joyous playing field, and saw the sports, and marked the manly face of Naisi, noblest and bravest of the corps of boys."

"Naisi, the son of Usna?" asked Levarcam, much surprised. "Naisi was his name, he told me so," said Deirdre; "but I did not ask whose son he was." "He told you so?" Levarcam asked again. "He told me so," said Deirdre, "when he threw the ball, by a miscast, backward, across the heads of the group of maidens who were standing on the edge of the green, and I rose up among them all, picked up the ball, and gave it back to him. He pressed my hand and smiled, and promised he would see me oft again; but never since that day, that fatal day, when Conor brought me to this lonely place, have he or I beheld each other more. Bring

Naisi here, O nurse, that I may once again behold his face, so bright and boyish, with its winning smile; then shall I live and laugh and love my life again."

"Speak not like this, O Maiden," exclaimed the nurse. "To-day the King comes for his visit. We are in winter now, but in the budding of the spring, he takes you hence to Emain, there to claim you as his wife."

"The king no doubt is kind," the girl replied, "and means me well, but he is old and grey, and in his face is something that I do not like. I think he could be cruel, and that if any man stood in his way, he would not hesitate to lay a trap to catch him, as Caffa snared the little mouse that ran about my room and kept me company. Yet will I go with him to Emain, for I think that somewhere among the people of the court, I shall find Naisi out."

"Hush, hush," the nurse replied, "Naisi is not a little boy no longer, but the foremost of all Ulster's younger chiefs, the hero of the Red Branch, and the favourite of the King. Speak not of Naisi to King Conor, or mayhap some harm will come to him." "Then will I never speak his name, or tell of him," the girl replied, "though in my dreams I see him every night playing at ball with me; but when he flings the ball for me to catch, 'tis ever the same thing. King Conor comes between and seizes it, and throws it back at Naisi. So can I never catch and hold it in my hands, and I am vexed and weep. But last night, O good nurse, King Conor flung the ball craftily at his head, and Naisi fell all red and stained with blood, like that poor calf that Caffa slew, thinking that I could eat it for my food. The little tender calf that played with me! Upon the winter's frost floor I saw its blood, all crimson-red upon the driven snow, and as I looked I saw a raven that stooped down to sip the blood; and, O dear nurse, I thought of Naisi then, for all his hair, as I remember it, was dark and glossy like the raven's wing, and in his cheeks the ruddy glow of health and beauty, like the blood, and white his skin like snow. Dear nurse, dear nurse, let me see Naisi once again, and send the King away." "Alas! alas!" Levarcam said; "most difficult indeed is thy desire, for far away is Naisi, and he dare not come within this fort. High is the wall and deep the moat, and fierce the blood-hounds watching at the gates." "At least," said Deirdre, "procure for me from Caffa that I may once in a while wander without the fort and breathe the open air upon the moor; this wall frowns on me like an enemy holding me in his grasp and stifling me, surely I die e'er long within these heavy walls. But on the moor, where no man comes (if you must have it so), I'd see at least the grouse winging its flight, and hear the plover and the peeweet call, and pluck the heather and the yellow gorse in summer time. O nurse, dear nurse, have pity on your child." When Levarcam saw the misery of the maid, she feared that Conor would upbraid her with neglect because her cheek grew pale, and her young joy seemed gone; and so that night she spoke to Caffa, and he said, "I think no harm could come if we should let the maiden walk out upon the wild hillside. No human creature, save a stray hunter following the deer, or a poor shepherd garnering his sheep, or some strange homeless wanderer, e'er sets his foot upon this lonesome moor. Far off are we from any human habitation; and the maid droops, indeed. Let her go out, but keep her well in sight; to climb the hilltop and to roam the heather moor as spring comes on, will bring fresh colour into her pale cheeks, and fit her for the wooing of the king."

So from that time, Deirdre went out upon the upland moor, and soon she knew each nook and stream and bit of forest-land for miles around. She learned the zig-zag flight of the long-billed snipe, she knew the otter's marshy lair, and where the grouse and wild-duck made their nests. She fed the timid fawn, wild, trustful as herself, and made a dear companion of a fox that followed her as though it were a dog; and once, while Levarcam stayed below, she climbed the dizzy height where golden eagles had built their nest upon the mountain's crest, and smoothed the eaglets with her own soft hand. And so she grew in health, and all her spirit came to her again, and when King Conor came to visit her, he thought that in his dreams and in the long life he had passed among the best of Erin's women, he had never seen or dreamed of a girl so lovely as this blood-drop of the moor. Eagerly he began to reckon up the days until, her fifteenth birthday being passed, he should bring her down to Emain, and take her as his wife. But of her walks he knew not, only Caffa and Levarcam knew.