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Aldis Dunbar

The Constant Green Jerkin

"A story is it? An' the grass a-perishin' for the want o' watherin' this very evenin'! Well, have yer will, an' tell the masther yerselves what was afther hindherin' me from me work."

'T WAS back o' the years, in the days when the Little People were a power in the land, an' there was fightin' a plenty with the Danes an' their like—that Cormac without a Kingdom lived by the Lough o' the Eagle with his three sons.

Now these were Dermond o' the Bow, an' Eiveen the Swift—an' the youngest of all, that was Conan o' the Long Arms; an' some called this last Conan the Singer, for he had skill in singin' more than any man on the shores o' Moyle, an' the birds came an' sat on the trees to listen when he played the harp.

I tell ye, Dermond o' the Bow was great at the huntin', an' could send his long arrows across the Lough o' the Eagle, an' strike the wild ducks that swam in the reeds; but Cormac his father, that had lost his kingdom by raison o' the Danes, could sit at the door o' his cabin an' bring down the sparrow-hawk that flew across the fir trees. An' the fir trees grew where the reeds ended.

An' Eiveen the Swift could run beyant the deer in the forest, an' turn them toward his brother, in the chase; but King Cormac, for all his white hair, was swifter still, an' could keep abreast o' the wind as it blew over the green grass, an' sent the little waves to break on the shores o' the Lough.

An' Conan stayed by the cabin, an' brought in wood for the fire, an' roasted the meat when his brothers came home weary from the hills. But when they were off in the early mornin', an' King Cormac sleepin' before the fire on his bed o' rushes, Conan would sit by the door with his harp, an' sing till the fishes poked their heads out o' the Lough to hear—an' even the old king himself could do nothin' greater nor that.

So time went past, an' King Cormac gave up livin' because o' being so old; an' there was nothing for him to leave to his three sons beyant his blessin' an' the shabby old green jerkin that he wore.

" 'Tis the chiefest treasure I have," says he, "an' I give it yees with me blessin'. Let none scorn it, or 'twill shame him in the end." An' with that he died, an' they buried him on the shore o' the Lough, with a great pile o' stones to mark the spot.

So when the night came, Dermond an' Eiveen lay by the fire; but Conan the Singer sat in the moonlight, playin' an' singin' to break the very hearts o' those that heard; an' even his two brothers were a-sorrowin', for all they were stout an' fierce.

An' says Dermond o' the Bow: "Give me the green jerkin; for 'tis I am the oldest, an' should wear it for a sign o' mournin' for King Cormac our father."

An' Eiveen the Swift brought it from the corner where it was hangin', an' slipped it on his brother's arms. But Conan kept on playin' in the moonlight, an' lookin' down the path o' the stars in the waters o' the Lough.

An' as he sat there, there came a great noise o' folk ridin' down the mountain side, rattlin' the stones under the feet o' the horses an' jinglin' their spurs, an' callin' one to the other. An' at the head o' the line rode two together.

One was a little, shrivelled old man, with eyes that burned like coals o' fire in his face; an' his hair was thin an' grey; an' while he was no giant like King Cormac, yet he wore rich armour, an' a crown on his head. An' beside him, on a white horse, came the fairest girl that had been seen in that place for many a day. Her dress was o' the green silk, with a mantle o' scarlet hangin' from her shoulders; an' her hair was shinin' yellow, so that one could scarce see the band o' wrought gold in it, tellin' her for a real king's daughter. An' behind came servants on horse an' afoot, dressed in bright cloth.

The moon was shinin' till 'twas light as day, an' they rode up to where Conan was singin', an' sat on their horses lookin' at him. Then his brothers, hearin' the noise, came to the door an' stared out; but Conan sang on, never carin' for naught but the pile o' stones by the shore.

Then the old man, that was a king, spoke to Dermond o' the Bow.

"Is it here that is the dwellin' o' Cormac without a Kingdom?"

"Ay," says Dermond. "Yestermorn it was that same; but this night he lies beneath the cairn o' stones that is on the edge o' the Lough."

"Then is a sthrong man passed," answered the old man. "An' we may turn back as we came."

"An' who may ye be?" asked Eiveen the Swift, pushin' forward.

"King Murdough am I, an' this is me daughter Maurya, whom I would give to the champion who shall help me against the Danes. An' Cormac was the sthrongest man of his hands in all the land, though his hair was white. For that would I have given him me daughter, an' he should have ruled me kingdom for me. Then would naught have hindhered me from spendin' me days in search of deep learnin'."

An' the princess nodded as he spoke, but her eyes were on Conan.

"Try me," says Dermond, throwin' back his black hair, to look more closely at the princess.

Says King Murdough: "But 'tis not alone a sthrong man I must have. 'Tis the sthrongest—an' one with wisdom in his heart to rule men."

"Try me," says Dermond again, "for I am the first-born son o' King Cormac, an' none can stand up against me an' live to tell of it."

When King Murdough looked at him, an' saw what a fine sthrong fellow he was, afther a bit it seemed to him that this might prove a champion to his mind; so he called a servant to bring forward a horse.

"Come to me court for three days," says he. "An' if ye stand trial o' strength with the best o' me men, an' do as ye boast—then shall ye be me son, an' rule for me."

Then Dermond mounted the horse an' rode off up the mountain with King Murdough—an' the princess beside him, with the golden hair that made light shine in the air as she turned to look back at Conan, where he sat playin' his sorrowin' for his father.

Now afther Dermond o' the Bow rode across the mountains to where King Murdough held court, he had a fine room given him, an' all the walls were covered with silver cloth; an' two servin' men went afther him wherever he walked, to carry his bow an' arrows. An' the princess sent him a sword an' shield.

So the first thing in the mornin', King Murdough called him out in the courtyard, an' bid him show how far he could shoot. An' Dermond shot across the castle, an' killed a pigeon that perched on the wall beyant. An' 'twas himself was more surprised than any, for never before had he done that well.

"You have shot eastward; now try to the west," says the princess.

So he looked where the forest was, to the west—an' never had he seen so clear—an' there was somethin' stirrin' among the bushes. Dermond bent his bow an' took aim, an' the arrow flew over wall an' stream—an' a deer leaped up in the air, an' fell dead in the open.

King Murdough nodded his head when he saw that, for he was thinkin' that this was sure the man he needed; an' he led him in, an' made a great feast for him. But the servants o' the princess stood aside, an' laughed at his old ragged shoes, an' at the faded green jerkin that was nigh on too small for his shoulders.

" 'Tis a scarecrow, an' no prince at all," says one.

"Put him up on the castle wall, an' he'll fright the Danes as he is," says another.

Now Dermond was a proud man o' his birth, an' he pretended not to hear them, thinkin' o' the fine things he would have when he wed the princess. So the first day went over without more trouble.

Then on the second day came the best fighters o' King Murdough's men, an' Dermond had never been so sthrong in fightin' as he was then. Down went every man he put hand on, an' none could stand up afther.

That night there was another feast; an' more nor before the maids that served Princess Maurya passed behind his chair an' laughed to each other at his poor dress. An' sleepin' that night, an' wakin' in the mornin', he was hot with anger at them. He took the sword that the princess had given him, an' cut a great piece o' the silver cloth from the wall o' the room an' made himself a cloak of it.

"There's none 'll dare to spake of it to-morrow, when I've married the king's daughter," says he, an' he threw the old green jerkin back o' the door.

When he came to the field where he was to show his strength, there was no man willin' to match with him. Then King Murdough gave word to blow the horn on the castle wall, tellin' all who heard that here was a great champion, an' that who wanted could try fightin' with him.

At last Eocha, a great, stout man, that was chief cook for the king's table, put his head out o' the door.

"Fight will I," says he. "Greasy apron against silver doublet, an' see which wins."

Dermond looked at him scornful like, for he was sure o' whippin' him, an' he stepped up bravely. An' there before he knew it, sure 'twas Dermond o' the Bow was lyin' on the stones o' the courtyard, beaten fair an' square, under the very eyes o' the princess.

An' then others took heart an' came up to fight, while poor Dermond had no heart to battle with more o' them, an' no understandin' how all this had come about.

"Fine feathers make the peacock," laughed the girls. "Where now is yer green jerkin, Dermond the Champion?"

So, all sudden like, it came to him what his father had said, an' he rushed off to the room where he'd slept, lookin' for the jerkin; but no sign of it was to be seen near nor far. An' in the doorway stood the princess, smilin' at him.

"What has gone wrong?" she asked.

"Lady Maurya," says Dermond, "me jerkin is gone, an' me power with it. Let me go from here, for I'm disgraced."

"An' have ye no strength o' yer own, lackin' it?" asked she.

"Ay," he answered, "but not more nor other men."

"Then here is a purse o' gold, Dermond o' the Bow, that ye may go off to some far kingdom, where ye can win another for yer wife. But I am not for ye."

An' he crept out by the low door at the back o' the castle, an' went off over the hills to seek his fortune, an' came back no more.

Now while these things were doin' in King Murdough's castle, Eiveen the Swift an' Conan his brother were livin' quietly by the Lough o' the Eagle. Each mornin' Conan took his harp to the edge o' the water an' played a lament for Cormac. An' when the third mornin' came, there on the cairn was somethin' strange. Conan went to see, an'  'twas none other than the green jerkin.

He called out loud to Eiveen, who came runnin'. "What is it?" says he.

"The green jerkin has come back without Dermond in it," says Conan.

"More like that he has been here an' left it for us while we were sleepin'," says Eiveen.

"Then 'twill bring him no luck," says Conan. "Did not Cormac our father say that whoever scorned it would be shamed by it in the end?"

"I will wear it for thought o' him," answered Eiveen. "An'  'tis in me mind to go to the court an' visit Dermond an' his princess."

With no more words, off went Eiveen, like the wind. Never had he run so swiftly, an' without wearyin', though the way was up hill an' over rocks. An' when he came to the castle he gave a great rap at the gate.

"Who stands knockin'?" called out the guard.

"Eiveen the Swift, brother to Dermond o' the Bow. Let me come in."

Well, the guard ran to Princess Maurya, with word that the brother o' Dermond was at the gate, clad in the same old green jerkin.

"Send him to me," says the princess; an' she watched the door close as she heard his feet comin' near. But when she saw him, she leaned back in her chair to hear what he should say. An' Eiveen the Swift looked at her with cold eyes, an' thought how well he would like to be in his brother's shoes.

"Where is Dermond o' the Bow?" he asked.

"Gone to seek his fortune in other lands," says Princess Maurya.

"An' have ye a champion betther nor him?" says Eiveen.

"Nay," says she. "He was thrown to the ground by Eocha, who is the cook. I will have no cook for a champion, but a right king's son, even though he be poor."

"Then will I try me fortune," says Eiveen.

An' with him it went as it had with Dermond. The first day he threw down each man that came against him; an' first of all was fat Eocha the cook sent sprawlin' among the stones.

But when the maids saw Eiveen they laughed again.

"A pretty set o' champions come for our princess, with their old green coats; when she wears nothin' poorer nor silk an' stuff o' gold."

Eiveen says never a word, thinkin' how he would turn them all away into the cold when he was married to Princess Maurya.

An' the second day he shot an arrow across the castle wall, an' killed a hawk that was carryin' off a chicken from beyant the river. An' again he cut a lock o' hair from the head o' Cleena, daughter o' Feargus the Black, as she bent to draw wather at the ford.

But naught held back the girls from castin' looks at his old coat, in the hall, an' saying to each other—pretendin' to be whisperin'—to see how well King Cormac had done for his sons.

Then Eiveen grew hot with rage, an' went off to his bed. An' all night he tossed about, thinkin' o' the gay silken an' velvet clothes that the other men wore as though they were naught worth speakin' of. An' when it began to grow light, he rose from his bed an' tore down a piece o' gold cloth that hung in the doorway, an' made a doublet to wear.

"Sure," thought he, "it'll all be mine by to-morrow. 'Tis but borrowin' me own." An' the jerkin he left lyin' by the window.

Then afther a bit he came runnin' back for it—for the fine gold doublet was all split up from his bein' thrown by King Murdough's groom. But the jerkin was not where he had left it.

"An' are ye beaten, too?" asked Princess Maurya.

"That am I—an' a worse fate befall Kevin the groom for trippin' me on the pavement," answered Eiveen. So she turned away, an' sent him a purse o' money by the hands o' Maive the Fair—one o' the maids that had laughed at him in the hall. But in Maive's heart rose sorrowin' for Eiveen's ill fortune, an' when she opened the gate to let him pass out, she gave him her hand an' followed him, an' together they went out into the world to win fortune.

Then it so happened that a second time Conan the Singer rose in early mornin' an' found the old jerkin lyin' on the grave o' Cormac.

"Scorn has come again," thought he. "Now 'tis me turn to wear it for love o' him who lies by the shore. An' it shall go hard with one who takes it from me."

Then he took his harp on his arm, an' went away up the mountain pass, where the eagle was callin' to its young.

At last he came to the castle, an' sat down by the gate, an' struck his harp, till all the men an' maids ran to see who was there. An' even the Princess Maurya stepped down from her great chair, an' went to the courtyard.

When she saw Conan, her eyes laughed with joy, an' she bade him enter, an' herself led him to King Murdough.

"Here is a champion again," says she.

"Nay," says Conan, "I came to search for me brothers."

"They have gone to far countries," answered the princess, "to find fortune. Will ye try yer own? Have ye a mind for fightin', an' for bein' me father's champion?"

"That have I, though it has never come to me to fight with men," says Conan; an' he bent down low an' kissed her hand.

Then King Murdough gave him lodgin' for the night; an'—by order o' the princess—'twas a small bare room. An' in the mornin' Conan came into the courtyard, an' looked at all the men who were there waitin' to fight with him.

"An' did Dermond meet these?" he asked o' the king.

"That he did," answered King Murdough, "an' gained the masthery for a day."

"Then will I do as well as he," says Conan.

So Princess Maurya brought out a sword an' a shield, an' stood on the broad top o' the castle wall to see the fightin'; an' Conan beat all the warriors back, like a brave lad.

Then, when King Murdough made the feast, Conan sat beside the princess in his old jerkin, that had taken many a cut that day; an' afther a while he chanced to look up an' see that the maids were makin' jest o' him.

"Why are ye laughin', me girls?" he asked; an' the princess waited to see what would come of it this time.

"Because of the ragged coat ye wear," says Cleena. "Have the sons o' Cormac but one jerkin between them?"

"Let none scorn it," says Conan, "or 'twill shame him in the end. For a token o' mournin' an' for love o' Cormac do I wear it; an' I fear to meet no man because of it, though he be dressed in silks an' satin." An' he turned to Princess Maurya, an' thought no more o' their foolish words. An' all night he dreamed o' her golden hair, until the room shone with the rememberin' of it.

In the mornin' he was ready for another trial; an' when they brought him the bow, he bent it bravely, an' sent his first arrow whirrin' through the open window of a cabin that stood beyond the ford, an' clipped out a candle that burned on the shelf within. An' for his second shot, he slew two great hawks that flew above the castle wall, an' together they fell into the river.

So that trial was passed, an' Conan went into the great hall, an' sat at the feet o' the princess, an' played an' sang until all the noise o' the court ceased for love o' his song.

Yet in the evenin', at the feastin', the king's men spoke scornin' words o' his torn jerkin.

"Will ye go against the Danes in it?" asked Feargus the Black. "Then may they see that ye are but a poor man's son, an' no prince."

"To-morrow shall ye take that word back," says Conan o' the Long Arms, "for no man shall make a jest o' Cormac the King while me arms have strength."

An' all through the night Conan dreamed o' the blue eyes o' Princess Maurya.

When the mornin' came, Feargus stood waitin' in the yard for Conan to come to him; and Princess Maurya watched to see what should befall. Then Conan came from his bed, an' on his back was the green jerkin, an' in his hand the sword o' the princess.

An' there was no chance at all for Feargus the Black, though he was the best man in the court o' the king. Sure, his sword went flyin' through the air, an' fell outside the wall.

When they saw that, there was no one left to risk fightin' with Conan, an' the king led him into the great hall with his own hands.

"Now will ye have Oona o' the White Hands to be yer wife; an' room to live here in me castle, with ten pieces o' gold for every day, and silk to wear; or will ye live in a cabin outside the wall, and wear yer old jerkin, like a poor kerne?"

"Outside the wall is for me, if Princess Maurya will be there too," answered Conan. "But me jerkin will I wear, an' none but her will I wed."

"Nay, if ye take her, together may yees wander into the world, for I give no gold with her."

"Then out into the world we go," says Conan blithely, holdin' out his hand to her, an' she put hers into it with gladness.

"An' call ye that wisdom?" says King Murdough. "Would ye rule men afther that fashion?"

"Who should rule men but him that rules his own?" says Conan. An' the princess says "Ay."

"Then have ye won yer rulin' fairly," says King Murdough, "an' shall have her an' the kingdom. An' as for the jerkin, 'tis yer robe of honour at this court; an' who says aught ill of it, to him shame shall come."

So King Murdough made great rejoicin's, an' gave his daughter to Conan, callin' him Conan o' the Kingdom, for a sign that he was the greatest man in it.

An' so far went the fear o' his name that neither Dane nor any other enemy dared set foot in the land for many a day, lest they might catch sight o' the green jerkin which gave power to the long arms o' Conan.

"But why did the princess put Conan in the little bare room?"  "Ah, when we guess why she did that, we'll know all o' the tale that's untold. An' now be off with yees, till I wather me green grass."