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.

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 the men. The daughters 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 that 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 toward 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 then 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. ‘You are doubtless of the stock of the old O’Donnells,’ I said. ‘I know well the hole in the river where their treasure lies buried under the guard of a serpent with many heads.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ he replied, ‘I am the last of a line of princes.’

We then fell to talking of many commonplace things, and when at last the gaunt old tax-gatherer got up to go, 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.

The knight of the sheep would have had the victor. He was indeed 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.

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