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THE QUEST OF EVERLASTING LIFE
(from the Isle of Man)

 

OW THE SONS OF THE AGED chief, who traced his ancestry down from Mananan, and, in the manner of that age, spoke of the Son of the Sea as his grandfather (though many centuries intervened), were called Nissyen, and Evnissyen.

 

The elder of them was fair, the son of his father; the younger of them was dark, the son of his mother. The younger was envious of his brother because he was brave and strong, and was much spoken of by the women of his father's house. He went about in silence and anger, and would lend no hand in the search for the Pearl of Never Die. Rather would he take counsel in secret with weird enchanters that he might despoil his brother's courage, beauty and strength.

At the corner of a crooked lane, Evnissyen met a little, wizen, old man with three-cornered eyes, from which he looked east, and west, and south, but never straight north.

'What is the matter?" said the little man.

'I hate my brother. He is everything and I am nothing.'

'Is that all?' said the weird-looking old fellow; and the pupils of his eyes went from one corner to the other, and back again. 'Here, take this, and put it under his bed by day, and at night he will turn black; then the women will look down their noses at him, and the men will spit on him.'

The man gave him a basket containing a snake, and then went his way - down the crooked lane whence he had come.

Nissyen, the elder brother, went to bed early, for he was a famous hunter, and had been abroad that day from early morning. When he arose the next day, and went down to the sea to bathe, he screamed aloud, for the change in his skin terrified him. And when he returned, every one of his father's house regarded him as an intruder, or worse - a spy, and cast him out, for no one would believe him when he said, 'I am Nissyen, the chief's eldest son.'

Then Nissyen sought the chief, and cried, 'Father! father!' But the chief turned his back on him. He went to his mother and cried, 'Mother! mother!' But his mother drove him from her, as she would a scheming usurper.

And with the steps of the laggard and the weariness of the heavy-hearted, he went his way.

At a place where a river winds by the foot of the mountain, he sat himself down on a great stone, and put his head on his hands.

When he looked up, he saw a little old woman coning along the river-bank, gathering sticks. Every time she gathered a handful of sticks she dropped the heavy bundle from her back and put the handful into it. The bundle was cumbrous, and so heavy that it was bending the old woman's face to the earth.

'How far hast thou to carry the bundle, Grandmother?' said the man.

'Halfway up the mountain,' the cailleach answered.

'I will carry it for thee,' said Nissyen; and he took it from he old woman's back and slung it over his own. But as he went he sighed in heaviness of heart.

'What ails thee, son?'

Nissyen told his story. By the time it was all told they had reached a little house, with its face to the sun and its back to the hill.

'Enter, and be comforted,' said the old woman, 'I will tell thee what thou must do.'

And when they had entered,

'Sit down and rest,' she said.

'But I am young still,' said Nissyen. 'If thou wilt rest thyself, I will kindle thy fire.'

The old woman was pleased by the young man's address. So she sat herself down, and, taking a sparkling crystal, gazed long and intently into it. Meanwhile Nissyen lit the fire, and put on a kettle of fish, savouring it with fragrant herbs. Soon it was cooked.

'Ay,' said the woman, looking up with deliberation from the crystal, 'that is right. Eat and be strong, for I see thee in a vision of happy days. Rest here until the morrow, and I will tell thee how thou may'st win a greater prize than ye do yet think of.'

After supper, Nissyen lay in a corner by the ingle-nook, but only slept by winks. Every time he awoke, to put a few more sticks on the slackening fire, he could hear the old woman in earnest conversation with 'somebodies' he could not see. In the morning she said:

'Rest until the day begins to wane. Then walk where the crooked lane meets the river-bank. There thou wilt meet a man with three-cornered eyes, eyes which look east, and west, and south, but never straight north. He will say, "Why and wherefore, my son? I am the friend to all in trouble, the guide to all who seek joy." Then ye must say so and so. But whatever he may prompt thee to do, thou must refrain or do the exact opposite.'

At sundown, Nissyen went by the way of the crooked lane and walked in sadness. The man was there, watching for wayfarers by the river-bank, his eyes moving from right to left, and left to right.

'Why and wherefore, my son?' he said. 'I am the friend to all in trouble, the guide to all who seek joy.'

Then said Nissyen, Such and such, is my story.

'And sad withal,' he said. 'But wait here till I go home for my velvet gloves. If, while I am gone, thou should'st see the Queen of the Little People coming by, hide thyself. Do not stop her, or speak.'

The moon comes up over the hill. Then a black cloud covers the face of the moon; darkness is over all.

But no! there is a bright light far, far away! What is it? A little star is approaching. It is coming along the river-bank. Nearer and nearer it comes. Now a company of Little People appear, and in the centre of the group is a lady, taller than the others. She is dressed in a green cloak, and bears a basket on her left arm, form which there is shining this great light; so pure and white is it, like unto a fallen or imprisoned star.

She approaches the gorse bushes in which Nissyen has hidden himself, but he, holding himself in secret no longer, comes forth, and bowing low, says:

'Hail, Queen! Tell me what I am to do, for such, and such, is my sad plight. I will be thy slave for ever if thou wilt enable me to redeem my father's promise to the great King, and tell me where I may seek, and find, the Pearl of Never Die.'

The bright-robed Queen of the Little People presumed to be amazed at the man's sudden appearance form the midst of the gorse bushes, and, of much earnestness, revolted at the colour of his skin.

'It is the venom of the snake,' she said to her followers, and then, addressing Nissyen, added, 'Rise, and follow me, and I will tell thee whither thou must go, and what thou must do.'

They journeyed along, and soon were on the western coast of our isle, near to the edge of the sea. A vision unfolded itself before their eyes. Ships, bearing all sorts of strange devices on hull and sails, were lying at anchor in the bay; boats were quietly making for the shore.

'Hist!' said the Queen in a whisper, 'these are the people of the King's house. In the first boat is the King's only daughter, the most beautiful princess beneath the skies. Be strong and fear not. The blood of yet a greater king courses in thy veins, and this fair lady will be thy mate, of a surety, if thou wilt fulfil thy father's promise, and win back the Pearl of Never Die. But thou must secure and hold fast the Flaming Sword. By it thou may'st overcome many enemies. By thy own firm will thou may'st not be lured from they quest by any subtle device that may assail a man. Ye must do this, and that.'

And she told him how to go through with it all. Then, with a puff from her lips, the light in the basket went out. In the same instant she disappeared herself, leaving only her sister to bear him company over the beginning of his way.

Nissyen, led by the Queen's little sister, above whose brow a diamond shone like a radiant star, went by the long and rugged path; the road along dangerous cliffs by the edge of the sea, and there, she, too, suddenly left him.

Nissyen descended the cliff, and immediately found himself faced by tall iron bars. He wrestled with the obstruction, bending one bar to the right, and another to the left, making in the end an opening large enough to force himself through.

Soon he found himself in a spacious cave, steeped in the music of running water. Men were gambling with dice, and drinking from horns which they dipped into a great bowl over which there hung the Flaming Sword with haft of gold.

'This,' he said, 'must be the sword of Mananan, gleaming like sunlight, that shall put every man to flight. Yet it looks too high to reach.'

Following the commands of the Queen of the Little People, he entered the chamber, and walked up boldly.

'Play and drink! Drink and play!' cried the men, offering him their horns full of liquor.

'A'nel, a'nel,' he exclaimed, 'I do not drink today, I come for the sword.'

The men burst into laughter.

'So brave a man as thou,' they said, 'hast no enemies. Besides, the Flaming Sword which thou dost seek is beyond thy reach. And, if it were not so, seek peace, gather gladness, drink to the hour that is with us now. Let that content thee. To-day we live, to-morrow we die.'

But he would not, and waited his chance. The men drank themselves into good humour; from good humour they drank themselves into noisy merriment; from noisy merriment they drank themselves into stupor, and finally, into silence.

Nissyen now brought tables and chairs to his aid. And these he buttressed with the men fallen into drunken stupor. With a supreme effort he succeeded, from the topmost ledge, in reaching the sword and cutting it down.

Suddenly a raven cawed, and cawed.

The drunken revellers were on their feet, but none dared approach a man wielding so trusty a weapon. With many a bitter curse he was allowed to pass thence.

Further along he found, as he had been told, a great hall beneath the level of the ground on which he trod. The chamber had no windows, the lightning being solely from the roof. Neither was there any entrance or exit, save by this same opening, and the men who sat below, feasting themselves, were all so fat and indolent, they could not possibly climb the rope which swung unheeded above their heads.

Wines, in casks and leathern bottles, filled one side of the hall, while in a corner of much squalor, among the discarded bones of many feasts, lay, as something of no account, the Pearl of Never Die. Only by risking all might a champion secure it. He did not hesitate. He let himself down by the rope.

The men hailed him as a good fellow, and offered him a seat of highest honour.

'A'nel, a'nel,' he exclaimed, ' I do not eat tonight.'

No other offence did he offer. Thus he waited his chance. As the men did eat of meats and drink of wine to their repletion, they gave him less and less, and still less, heed.

Nissyen picked up the discarded Pearl, and put it, for safety, near his heart. Then he seized the rope and began to climb. As he did so, a raven cawed, and cawed.

Instantly the men awoke from their dazed stupor, and in their alarm rushed upon each other, rather than upon Nissyen, whom they could not pursue from fatness.

So he got his way.

Again, on his path, he came to a palace all blazing with light. His way led in at one door, and out by another. No sooner had he passed the entrance than he was greeted by shouts of joy from a company of women.

'Come, come,' they said, 'tarry awhile, and make glad.'

'A'nel, a'nel,' he exclaimed, 'I am under a vow.'

Then they pleaded for the gift of the Pearl. Trusting not his strength of will, against enemies so alluring, he hastened away.

Finally, when hope was dying in his heart, and his limbs were no longer able to support him, he came to a lady of surpassing loveliness, all clothed in white.

'Who art thou, brave man,' she asked, 'that thou hast overcome all thy enemies, and, with thy honour untarnished, hath secured the Flaming Sword?'

'I am Nissyen, my lady,' he made reply, 'the son of the Elder of the Land, grandson of our revered Lord and King Mananan.'

'And thy mission in this Other-World?'

'I came at the bidding of my father, to whom was given the command of Orry, the King, to seek the Pearl of Never Die, and that I have won, above, perchance, all other winnings of my proud lady.'

'Is it so precious that thou would'st never yield it up to another?'

'He who holds is ever willing to give. That is the virtue of a gem above all counting of gold. The King did for this cause come hither. And yet it was a vain quest. "He who finds must of a surety have won; she who receives may only hold with her love, and give with her heart." This is the motto of a great treasure. Mananan made gift to his Queen, that she might share his Everlasting Day. And the Queen made gift to her son, the ancestor of my father's house. Then was it lost, for its virtues were gone. But who, my lady, art thou, in this realm of pleasantness, that could envy a prize which, making thee no richer, would leave me, in my father's eye, poor indeed?'

'I am Hilda, the King's daughter,' the lady made reply. 'Not the gem for the treasure's sake, but for the love of a man such as thou did I so boldly make bid. But rest thee, and in the refreshment of they fatigued body thou wilt awake to find thyself white again, white as the white rose with ruddy bloom.'

Nissyen cast himself down, and with the gem firmly lashed to his body, he was, in the instant, asleep.

When the sun dawned the day, and Nissyen woke again, behold! he was white again. Beside him stood the little old woman with whom be began his adventure. Her silent gaze was the gaze of mingled sympathy and joy.

'Grandmother,' said Nissyen, in freshened gladness, 'let me make relation of my tale. I have regained the Flaming Sword of Mananan, and found, too, the Pearl of Never Die. But more wonderful than all else, I have met a fair and beautiful lady, one whose loveliness surpasses every world of the Bright Robed Queen.'

'Peace, peace, my son,' said the cailleach impatiently, having no ears for love's thrice-a-thousand-times-told-tale.

'Go thou before the King, bearing on thy back this burden,' she said, showing him a full sack. 'Cast the contents at Orry's feet, saying, "Long live my lord, the King."'

Now, Nissyen had prospered so exceedingly at the advice of the old woman, that, with a willing heart, he picked up the sack of pebbles, and went boldly forth with the heavy load on his back.

In the court of the King, Nissyen threw down his burden, emptying the sack at Orry's feet, as he had been bidden. Lo! every pebble was a diamond as big as a bird's egg! Cut, and cut again, at many angles, the light radiated in every facet of every gem, dazzling the eyes of all onlookers.

Nissyen himself marvelled at the immensity of the riches he had unsuspectingly borne. But, know ye, the little old woman who had thus befriended her son, was a fairy. She had lived ten thousand years, and had kept the Treasury of The Hundred Kings of the Little People. A sack of cut diamonds was but a trifle from the vastness of their store.

Seeing the pleased countenance of the King, and, more than all else, the sweet lady of his journeyings come hence and take her place at Orry's feet, Nissyen brought forth also the Pearl, saying, 'O King, my quest is ended. Here, too, is the Pearl of Never Die.'

A murmur of admiration and delight passed over the whole company.

'Thrice happy youth,' exclaimed the King. 'For this treasure came I hither. Yet have I gathered wisdom rather than riches. From the lips of thy father, of revered memory, I have learned the virtues of this gem. He who holds must of a surety have found. And he who has found, must of a surety have sought. And he who has sought, must have ploughed the lonely furrow, and braved the angry sea, serving all in courage, honesty and love. As a charm, it may only reveal its potency to one of another sex, for that is the foundation of that love which is life and eternal. Thus said the Druids of old time, thus say the old women and physicians of our day, learned in ancient law and custom. But it would as ill become a King to bemean so supreme a gift as to make labour in adding colour to the rose, or to fashion order out of the beauty of the orderless-order of the starry night - all vain and foolish mockery. Say now, what doth thy heart crave, my son, and if it is in thy Lord's giving, it shall be thine.'

'Thy daughter, sire,' said Nissyen fearlessly, adding not so much as a single world in extenuation of his crime.

The King's countenance clouded at so bold an unexpected a request. But had he not pledged his word? He turned a grave and inquiring look upon his daughter. Hilda's answer was in eyes full of joyful expectancy.

'Then she is thine, and this day shalt thou be made my heir, as truly as my son.'

Hilda flew into her lover's arms, and Nissyen tenderly kissed her, and held her in his fond embrace.

'But stay!' said Orry, in a voice of seeming reproach of himself - as a gentle smile o'erspread his countenance, ' I cannot sell my daughter as the pagans do. And a King cannot be outstripped in the giving. If thou hast taken my daughter, I shall not fail in kingly gifts for her nuptials. Take back the Pearl of Never Die, for while my child shall have joy of thee, and thee of her, me heart can know no sorrow, nor my proud day suffer eclipse or death.'

The mating of Nissyen and Hilda, with the gift to her of the precious Pearl of Never Die, now set amid a spray of flowering myrtle, as so truly honoured and beloved of the Viking's bride, was immediately celebrated and proclaimed, and the King, the Elders, and all the people of the land of our precious Magic Isle, gave themselves to music and feasting of many days.

Thus was the royal line of Mananan, that began with Partholan, the son of Sera, who came out of heaven, preserved at the coming of Orry the King to the Island of the Lord, the Isle of Man, to this hour.

(From "Classic Celtic Fairy Tales" by John Matthews)

 

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