IN the centre of the pine wood called Coilla Doraca there lived not long ago two Philosophers. They were wiser than anything else in the world except the Salmon who lies in the pool of Glyn Cagny into which the nuts of knowledge fall from the hazel bush on its bank. He, of course, is the most profound of living creatures, but the two Philosophers are next to him in wisdom. Their faces looked as though they were made of parchment, there was ink under their nails, and every difficulty that was submitted to them, even by women, they were able to instantly resolve. The Grey Woman of Dun Gortin and the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath asked them the three questions which nobody had ever been able to answer, and they were able to answer them. That was how they obtained the enmity of these two women which is more valuable than the friendship of angels. The Grey Woman and the Thin Woman were so incensed at being answered that they married the two Philosophers in order to be able to pinch them in bed, but the skins of the Philosophers were so thick that they did not know they were being pinched. They repaid the fury of the women with such tender affection that these vicious creatures almost expired of chagrin, and once, in a very ecstacy of exasperation, after having been kissed by their husbands, they uttered the fourteen hundred maledictions which comprised their wisdom, and these were learned by the Philosophers who thus became even wiser than before.
In due process of time two children were born of these marriages. They were born on the same day and in the same hour, and they were only different in this, that one of them was a boy and the other one was a girl. Nobody was able to tell how this had happened, and, for the first time in their lives, the Philosophers were forced to admire an event which they had been unable to prognosticate; but having proved by many different methods that the children were really children, that what must be must be, that a fact cannot be controverted, and that what has happened once may happen twice, they described the occurrence as extraordinary but not unnatural, and submitted peacefully to a Providence even wiser than they were.
The Philosopher who had the boy was very pleased because, he said, there were too many women in the world, and the Philosopher who had the girl was very pleased also because, he said, you cannot have too much of a good thing: the Grey Woman and the Thin Woman, however, were not in the least softened by maternity-they said that they had not bargained for it, that the children were gotten under false presences, that they were respectable married women, and that, as a protest against their wrongs, they would not cook any more food for the Philosophers. This was pleasant news for their husbands, who disliked the women's cooking very much, but they did not say so, for the women would certainly have insisted on their rights to cook had they imagined their husbands disliked the results: therefore, the Philosophers besought their wives every day to cook one of their lovely dinners again, and this the women always refused to do.
They all lived together in a small house in the very centre of a dark pine wood. Into this place the sun never shone because the shade was too deep, and no wind ever came there either, because the boughs were too thick, so that it was the most solitary and quiet place in the world, and the Philosophers were able to hear each other thinking all day long, or making speeches to each other, and these were the pleasantest sounds they knew of. To them there were only two kinds of sounds anywhere—these were conversation and noise: they liked the first very much indeed, but they spoke of the second with stern disapproval, and, even when it was made by a bird, a breeze, or a shower of rain, they grew angry and demanded that it should be abolished. Their wives seldom spoke at all and yet they were never silent: they communicated with each other by a kind of physical telegraphy which they had learned among the Shee-they cracked their finger-joints quickly or slowly and so were able to communicate with each other over immense distances, for by dint of long practice they could make great explosive sounds which were nearly like thunder, and gentler sounds like the tapping of grey ashes on a hearthstone. The Thin Woman hated her own child, but she loved the Grey Woman's baby, and the Grey Woman loved the Thin Woman's infant but could not abide her own. A compromise may put an end to the most perplexing of situations, and, consequently, the two women swapped children, and at once became the most tender and amiable mothers imaginable, and the families were able to live together in a more perfect amity than could be found anywhere else.
The children grew in grace and comeliness. At first the little boy was short and fat and the little girl was long and thin, then the little girl became round and chubby while the little boy grew lanky and wiry. This was because the little girl used to sit very quiet and be good and the little boy used not.
They lived for many years in the deep seclusion of the pine wood wherein a perpetual twilight reigned, and here they were wont to play their childish games, flitting among the shadowy trees like little quick shadows. At times their mothers, the Grey Woman and the Thin Woman, played with them, but this was seldom, and sometimes their fathers, the two Philosophers, came out and looked at them through spectacles which were very round and very glassy, and had immense circles of horn all round the edges. They had, however, other playmates with whom they could romp all day long. There were hundreds of rabbits running about in the brushwood; they were full of fun and were very fond of playing with the children. There were squirrels who joined cheerfully in their games, and some goats, having one day strayed in from the big world, were made so welcome that they always came again whenever they got the chance. There were birds also, crows and blackbirds and willy-wagtails, who were well acquainted with the youngsters, and visited them as frequently as their busy lives permitted.
At a short distance from their home there was a clearing in the wood about ten feet square; through this clearing, as through a funnel, the sun for a few hours in the summer time blazed down. It was the boy who first discovered the strange radiant shaft in the wood. One day he had been sent out to collect pine cones for the fire. As these were gathered daily the supply immediately near the house was scanty, therefore he had, while searching for more, wandered further from his home than usual. The first sight of the extraordinary blaze astonished him. He had never seen anything like it before, and the steady, unwinking glare aroused his fear and curiosity equally. Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will; indeed, it has led many people into dangers which mere physical courage would shudder away from, for hunger and love and curiosity are the great impelling forces of life. When the little boy found that the light did not move he drew closer to it, and at last, emboldened by curiosity, he stepped right into it and found that it was not a thing at all. The instant that he stepped into the light he found it was hot, and this so frightened him that he jumped out of it again and ran behind a tree. Then he jumped into it for a moment and out of it again, and for nearly half an hour he played a splendid game of tip and tig with the sunlight. At last he grew quite bold and stood in it and found that it did not burn him at all, but he did not like to remain in it, fearing that he might be cooked. When he went home with the pine cones he said nothing to the Grey Woman of Dun Gortin or to the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath or to the two Philosophers, but he told the little girl all about it when they went to bed, and every day afterwards they used to go and play with the sunlight, and the rabbits and the squirrels would follow them there and join in their games with twice the interest they had shown before.
To the lonely house in the pine wood people sometimes came for advice on subjects too recondite for even those extremes of elucidation, the parish priest and the tavern. These people were always well received, and their perplexities were attended to instantly, for the Philosophers liked being wise and they were not ashamed to put their learning to the proof, nor were they, as so many wise people are, fearful lest they should become poor or less respected by giving away their knowledge. These were favourite maxims with them:
You must be fit to give before you can be fit to receive.
Knowledge becomes lumber in a week, therefore, get rid of it.
The box must be emptied before it can be refilled.
Refilling is progress.
A sword, a spade, and a thought should never be allowed to rust.
The Grey Woman and the Thin Woman, however, held opinions quite contrary to these, and their maxims also were different:
A secret is a weapon and a friend.
Man is God's secret, Power is man's secret, Sex is woman's secret.
By having much you are fitted to have more.
There is always room in the box.
The art of packing is the last lecture of wisdom.
The scalp of your enemy is progress.
Holding these opposed views it seemed likely that visitors seeking for advice from the Philosophers might be astonished and captured by their wives; but the women were true to their own doctrines and refused to part with information to any persons saving only those of high rank, such as policemen, gombeen men, and district and county councillors; but even to these they charged high prices for their information, and a bonus on any gains which accrued through the following of their advices. It is unnecessary to state that their following was small when compared with those who sought the assistance of their husbands, for scarcely a week passed but some person came through the pine wood with his brows in a tangle of perplexity.
In these people the children were deeply interested. They used to go apart afterwards and talk about them, and would try to remember what they looked like, how they talked, and their manner of walking or taking snuff. After a time they became interested in the problems which these people submitted to their parents and the replies or instructions wherewith the latter relieved them. Long training had made the children able to sit perfectly quiet, so that when the talk came to the interesting part they were entirely forgotten, and ideas which might otherwise have been spared their youth became the commonplaces of their conversation.
When the children were ten years of age one of the Philosophers died. He called the household together and announced that the time had come when he must bid them all good-bye, and that his intention was to die as quickly as might be. It was, he continued, an unfortunate thing that his health was at the moment more robust than it had been for a long time, but that, of course, was no obstacle to his resolution, for death did not depend upon ill-health but upon a multitude of other factors with the details whereof he would not trouble them.
His wife, the Grey Woman of Dun Gortin, applauded this resolution and added as an amendment that it was high time he did something, that the life he had been leading was an arid and unprofitable one, that he had stolen her fourteen hundred maledictions for which he had no use and presented her with a child for which she had none, and that, all things concerned, the sooner he did die and stop talking the sooner everybody concerned would be made happy.
The other Philosopher replied mildly as he lit his pipe: "Brother, the greatest of all virtues is curiosity, and the end of all desire is wisdom; tell us, therefore, by what steps you have arrived at this commendable resolutton."
To this the Philosopher replied: "I have attained to all the wisdom which I am fitted to bear. In the space of one week no new truth has come to me. All that I have read lately I knew before; all that I have thought has been but a recapitulation of old and wearisome ideas. There is no longer an horizon before my eves. Space has narrowed to the petty dimensions of my thumb. Time is the tick of a clock. Good and evil are two peas in the one pod. My wife's face is the same for ever. I want to play with the children, and yet I do not want to. Your conversation with me, brother, is like the droning of a bee in a dark cell. The pine trees take root and grow and die.—It's all bosh. Good-bye."
His friend replied:
"Brother, these are weighty reflections, and I do clearly perceive that the time has come for you to stop. I might observe, not in order to combat your views, but merely to continue an interesting conversation, that there are still some knowledges which you have not assimilated —you do not yet know how to play the tambourine, nor how to be nice to your wife, nor how to get up first in the morning and cook the breakfast. Have you learned how to smoke strong tobacco as I do? or can you dance in the moonlight with a woman of the Shee? To understand the theory which underlies all things is not sufficient. It has occurred to me, brother, that wisdom may not be the end of everything. Goodness and kindliness are, perhaps, beyond wisdom. Is it not possible that the ultimate end is gaiety and music and a dance of joy? Wisdom is the oldest of all things. Wisdom is all head and no heart. Behold, brother, you are being crushed under the weight of your head. You are dying of old age while you are yet a child."
"Brother," replied the other Philosopher, "your voice is like the droning of a bee in a dark cell. If in my latter days I am reduced to playing on the tambourine and running after a hag in the moonlight, and cooking your breakfast in the grey morning, then it is indeed time that I should die. Good-bye, brother."
So saying, the Philosopher arose and removed all the furniture to the sides of the room so that there was a clear space left in the centre. He then took off his boots and his coat, and standing on his toes he commenced to gyrate with extraordinary rapidity. In a few moments his movements became steady and swift, and a sound came from him like the humming of a swift saw; this sound grew deeper and deeper, and at last continuous, so that the room was filled with a thrilling noise. In a quarter of an hour the movement began to noticeably slacken. In another three minutes it was quite slow. In two more minutes he grew visible again as a body, and then he wobbled to and fro, and at last dropped in a heap on the floor. He was quite dead, and on his face was an expression of serene beatitude.
"God be with you, brother," said the remaining Philosopher, and he lit his pipe, focused his vision on the extreme tip of his nose, and began to meditate profoundly on the aphorism whether the good is the all or the all is the good. In another moment he would have become oblivious of the room, the company, and the corpse, but the Grey Woman of Dun Gortin shattered his meditation by a demand for advice as to what should next be done. The Philosopher, with an effort, detached his eyes from his nose and his mind from his maxim.
"Chaos," said he, "is the first condition. Order is the first law. Continuity is the first reflection. Quietude is the first happiness. Our brother is dead—bury him." So saying, he returned his eyes to his nose, and his mind to his maxim, and lapsed to a profound reflection wherein nothing sat perched on insubstantiality, and the Spirit of Artifice goggled at the puzzle.
The Grey Woman of Dun Gortin took a pinch of snuff from her box and raised the keen over her husband:
"You were my husband and you are dead.
It is wisdom that has killed you.
If you had listened to my wisdom instead of to your own you would still be a trouble to me and I would still be happy.
Women are stronger than men—they do not die of wisdom.
They are better than men because they do not seek wisdom.
They are wiser than men because they know less and understand more.
I had fourteen hundred maledictions, my little store, and by a trick you stole them and left me empty.
You stole my wisdom and it has broken your neck.
I lost my knowledge and I am yet alive raising the keen over your body, but it was too heavy for you, my little knowledge.
You will never go out into the pine wood in the morning, or wander abroad on a night of stars.
You will not sit in the chimney-corner on the hard nights, or go to bed, or rise again, or do anything at all from this day out.
Who will gather pine cones now when the fire is going down, or call my name in the empty house, or be angry when the kettle is not boiling?
Now I am desolate indeed. I have no knowledge, I have no husband, I have no more to say."
"If I had anything better you should have it," said she politely to the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath.
"Thank you," said the Thin Woman, "it was very nice. Shall I begin now? My husband is meditating and we may be able to annoy him."
"Don't trouble yourself," replied the other, "I am past enjoyment and am, moreover, a respectable woman."
"That is no more than the truth, indeed."
"I have always done the right thing at the right time."
"I'd be the last body in the world to deny that," was the warm response.
"Very well, then," said the Grey Woman, and she commenced to take off her boots. She stood in the centre of the room and balanced herself on her toe.
"You are a decent, respectable lady," said the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath, and then the Grey Woman began to gyrate rapidly and more rapidly until she was a very fervour of motion, and in three-quarters of an hour
(for she was very tough) she began to slacken, grew visible, wobbled, and fell beside her dead husband, and on her face was a beatitude almost surpassing his.
The Thin Woman of Inis Magrath smacked the children and put them to bed, next she buried the two bodies under the hearthstone, and then, with some trouble, detached her husband from his meditations. When he became capable of ordinary occurrences she detailed all that had happened, and said that he alone was to blame for the sad bereavement. He replied:
"The toxin generates the anti-toxin. The end lies concealed in the beginning. All bodies grow around a skeleton. Life is a petticoat about death. I will not go to bed."
ON the day following this melancholy occurrence Meehawl MacMurrachu, a small farmer in the neighbourhood, came through the pine trees with tangled brows. At the door of the little house he said, "God be with all here," and marched in.
The Philosopher removed his pipe from his lips-"God be with yourself," said he, and he replaced his pipe.
Meehawl MacMurrachu crooked his thumb at space"Where is the other one?" said he.
"Ah!" said the Philosopher.
"He might be outside, maybe?"
"He might, indeed," said the Philosopher gravely.
"Well, it doesn't matter," said the visitor, "for you have enough knowledge by yourself to stock a shop. The reason I came here to-day was to ask your honoured advice about my wife's washing-board. She only has it a couple of years, and the last time she used it was when she washed out my Sunday shirt and her black skirt with the red things on it—you know the one?"
"I do not," said the Philosopher.
"Well, anyhow, the washboard is gone, and my wife says it was either taken by the fairies or by Bessie Hannigan—you know Bessie Hannigan? She has whiskers like a goat and a lame leg!"-
"I do not," said the Philosopher.
"No matter," said Meehawl MacMurrachu. "She didn't take it, because my wife got her out yesterday and kept her talking for two hours while I went through everything in her bit of a house—the washboard wasn't there."
"It wouldn't be," said the Philosopher.
"Maybe your honour could tell a body where it is then?"
"Maybe I could," said the Philosopher; "are you listening?"
"I am," said Meehawl MacMurrachu.
The Philosopher drew his chair closer to the visitor until their knees were jammed together. He laid both his hands on Meehawl MacMurrachu's knees-
"Washing is an extraordinary custom," said he. "We are washed both on coming into the world and on going out of it, and we take no pleasure from the first washing nor any profit from the last."
"True for you, sir," said Meehawl MacMurrachu.
"Many people consider that scourings supplementary to these are only due to habit. Now, habit is continuity of action, it is a most detestable thing and is very difficult to get away from. A proverb will run where a writ will not, and the follies of our forefathers are of greater importance to us than is the well-being of our posterity."
"I wouldn't say a word against that, sir," said Meehawl MacMurrachu.
"Cats are a philosophic and thoughtful race, but they do not admit the efficacy of either water or soap, and yet it is usually conceded that they are cleanly folk. There are exceptions to every rule, and I once knew a cat who lusted after water and bathed daily: he was an unnatural brute and died ultimately of the head staggers. Children are nearly as wise as cats. It is true that they will utilize water in a variety of ways, for instance, the destruction of a tablecloth or a pinafore, and I have observed them greasing a ladder with soap, showing in the process a great knowledge of the properties of this material."
"Why shouldn't they, to be sure?" said Meehawl MacMurrachu. "Have you got a match, sir?"
"I have not," said the Philosopher. "Sparrows, again, are a highly acute and reasonable folk. They use water to quench thirst, but when they are dirty they take a dust bath and are at once cleansed. Of course, birds are often seen in the water, but they go there to catch fish and not to wash. I have often fancied that fish are a dirty, sly, and unintelligent people—this is due to their staying so much in the water, and it has been observed that on being removed from this element they at once expire through sheer ecstasy at escaping from their prolonged washing."
"I have seen them doing it myself," said Meehawl. "Did you ever hear, sir, about the fish that Paudeen MacLoughlin caught in the policeman's hat."
"I did not," said the Philosopher. "The first person who washed was possibly a person seeking a cheap notoriety. Any fool can wash himself, but every wise man knows that it is an unnecessary labour,for nature will quickly reduce him to a natural and healthy dirtiness again. We should seek, therefore, not how to make ourselves clean, but how to attain a more unique and splendid dirtiness, and perhaps the accumulated layers of matter might, by ordinary geologic compulsion, become incorporated with the human cuticle and so render clothing unnecessary—"
"About that washboard," said Meehawl, "I was just going to say—"
"It doesn't matter," said the Philosopher. "In its proper place I admit the necessity for water. As a thing to sail a ship on it can scarcely be surpassed (not, you will understand, that I entirely approve of ships, they tend to create and perpetuate international curiosity and the smaller vermin of different latitudes). As an element wherewith to put out a fire, or brew tea, or make a slide in winter it is useful, but in a tin basin it has a repulsive and meagre aspect.—Now as to your wife's washboard—"
"Good luck to your honour," said Meehawl.
"Your wife says that either the fairies or a woman with a goat's leg has it."
"It's her whiskers," said Meehawl.
"They are lame," said the Philosopher sternly.
"Have it your own way, sir, I'm not certain now how the creature is afflicted."
"You say that this unhealthy woman has not got your wife's washboard. It remains, therefore, that the fairies have it."
"It looks that way," said Meehawl.
"There are six clans of fairies living in this neighbourhood; but the process of elimination, which has shaped the world to a globe, the ant to its environment, and man to the captaincy of the vertebrates, will not fail in this instance either."
"Did you ever see anything like the way wasps have increased this season?" said Meehawl; "faith, you can't sit down anywhere but your breeches—"
"I did not," said the Philosopher. "Did you leave out a pan of milk on last Tuesday?"
"I did then."
"Do you take off your hat when you meet a dust twirl?"
"I wouldn't neglect that," said Meehawl.
"Did you cut down a thorn bush recently?"
"I'd sooner cut my eye out," said Meehawl, "and go about as wall-eyed as Lorcan O'Nualain's ass: I would that. Did you ever see his ass, sir? It—"
"I did not," said the Philosopher. "Did you kill a robin redbreast?"
"Never,'" said Meehawl. "By the pipers," he added, "that old skinny cat of mine caught a bird on the roof yesterday."
"Hah!'' cried the Philosopher, moving, if it were possible, even closer to his client, "now we have it. It is the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora took your washboard. Go to the Gort at once. There is a hole under a tree in the south-east of the field. Try what you will find in that hole."
"I'll do that," said Meehawl. "Did you ever-"
"I did not," said the Philosopher.
So Meehawl MacMurrachu went away and did as he had been bidden, and underneath the tree of Gort na Cloca Mora he found a little crock of gold.
"There's a power of washboards in that," said he.
By reason of this incident the fame of the Philosopher became even greater than it had been before, and also by reason of it many singular events were to happen with which you shall duly become acquainted.