THE next morning I proceeded alone to the cave, to witness the natural curiosity of its subterranean river, my interest in the visit being somewhat increased by the foregoing tale. Leaving my home at the little village of Cong I bent my way on foot through the fields, if you may venture to give that name to the surface of this immediate district of the couuty Mayo, which, presenting large flat muses of limestone, intersected by patches of verdure, gives one the idea much more of a burial-ground covered with monumental slabs than a formation of Nature. Yet (I must make this remark en passant) such is the richness of the pasture in these little verdant interstices, that cattle are fattened upon it in a much shorter time than on a meadow of the most cultured aspect; and though to the native of Leinster this land (if we may 'be pardoned a premeditated bull) would appear all stones, the Mayo farmer knows it from experience to be a profitable tenure. Sometimes deep clefts occur between these laminae of limestone rock, which, closely overgrown with verdure, have not infrequently occasioned serious accidents to man. and beast; and one of these chasms, of larger dimensions than usual, forms the entrance to the celebrated cave in question.
Very rude steps of unequal height, partly natural and partly artificial, lead the explorer of its quiet beauty, by an abrupt descent, to the bottom of the cave, which contains an enlightened area of some thirty or forty feet, whence a naturally vaulted passage opens, of the deepest gloom. The depth of the cave may be about equal to its width at the bottom; the mouth is not more than twelve or fifteen feet across; and pendent from its margin clusters of ivy and other parasite plants bang and cling in all the fantastic variety of natural festooning and tracery. It is a truly beautiful and poetical little spot, and particularly interesting to the stranger from, being unlike anything else one has ever seen, and having none of the noisy and vulgar pretence of regular show-places, which calls upon you every moment to exclaim "Prodigious!"
An elderly and decent-looking woman had just filled her pitcher with the deliciously cold and clear water of the subterranean river that flowed along its bed of small, smooth, and many-coloured pebbles, as I arrived at the bottom; and perceiving at once that I was a stranger, she paused, partly perhaps with the pardonable pride of displaying her local knowledge, but more from the native peasant politeness of her country, to become the temporary Cicerone of the cave. She spoke some word of Irish, and hurried forth on her errand a very handsome and active boy, of whom she informed me she was the great-grandmother.
"Great-grandmother! "I repeated, in unfeigned astonishment.
"Yes, your honour," she answered, with evident pleasure sparkling In her eyes, which time had not yet deprived of then, brightness, or the soul-subduing influence of this selfish world bereft of their kind-hearted expression.
"You are the youngest woman I have ever seen," said I, "to be a great-grandmother."
"Troth, I don't doubt you, sir," she answered.
"And you seem still in good health, and likely to live many a year yet," said I.
"With the help of God, sir," said she reverently.
"But," I added, "I perceive a great number of persons about here of extreme age. Now, how long generally do the people in this country live?"
"Troth, sir," said she, with the figurative drollery of her country, "we live here as long as we like."
"Well, that is no inconsiderable privilege," said I; "but you, nevertheless, must have married very young?"
"I was not much over sixteen, your honour, when I had my first child at my breast."
"That was beginning early," said I.
"Thrue for you, sir; and faith, Noreen (that's my daughter, sir)--Noreen herself lost no time either; I suppose she thought she had as good a right as the mother before her--she was married at seventeen, and a likely couple herself and her husband was. So you see, sir, it was not long before I was a granny. Well, to make the saying good, 'As the ould cock crows, the young bird cherrups,' and faiks, the whole breed, seed, and generation tuk after the owld woman (that's myself sir); and so, in coorse of time, I was not only a granny, but a grate granny; and, by the same token, here comes my darling Paudeen Bawn, with what I sent him for."
Here the fine little fellow I have spoken of, with his long fair hair curling about his shoulders, descended into the cave, bearing some faggot of bogwood, a wisp of straw, and a lighted sod of turf.
"Now, your honour, it's what you'll see the pigeon-hole to advantage."
"What pigeon-hole!" said I.
"Here where we are," she replied.
"Why is it so called?" l inquired.
"Because, sir, the wild pigeons often build in the bushes and the ivy that's round the mouth of the cave, and in here too," said she, pointing into the gloomy depth of the interior.
"Blow that turf, Paudeen; "and Paudeen, with distended cheeks and compressed lips, forthwith poured a few vigorous blasts on the sod of turf, which soon flickered and blazed, while the kind old woman lighted her faggots of bogwood at the flame.
"Now, sir, follow me," 'said my conductress.
"I am sorry you have had so much trouble on my account," said I. "Oh, no throuble in life, your honour, but the greatest of pleasure;" and so saying, she proceeded into the cave, and I followed, carefully choosing my steps by the help of her torch-light along the slippery path of rock that overhung the river. When she had reached a point of some little elevation, she held up her lighted pine branches, and waving them to and fro, asked me could I see the top of the cave.
The effect of her figure was very fine, illumined as it was in the midst of utter darkness by the red glare of the blazing faggots; and as she wound them round her head, and shook their flickering sparks about, it required no extraordinary stretch of imagination to suppose her, with her ample cloak of dark drapery, and a few straggling tresses of grey hair escaping from the folds of a rather Eastern head-dress, some sibyl about to commence an awful rite, and evoke her ministering spirits from the dark void, or call some water-demon from the river, which rushed unseen along, telling of its wild course by the turbulent dash of its waters, which the reverberation of the cave rendered still more hollow.
She shouted aloud, and the cavern - echoes answered to her summons. "Look!" said she--and she lighted the wisp of straw, and flung it on the stream. It floated rapidly away, blazing in wild undulations over the perturbed surface of the river, and at length suddenly disappeared altogether. The effect was most picturesque and startling; it was even awful. I might almost say sublime!
Her light being nearly expired, we retraced our steps, and emerging from the gloom, stood beside the river, in the enlightened area I have described.
"Now, sir," said my old woman, "we must thry and see the white throut; and you never seen a throut o' that colour yet, I warrant."
I assented to the truth of this.
"They say it's a fairy throut, yer honour, and tells mighty quare stories about it."
"What are they?" I inquired.
"Troth, it's myself doesn't know the half o' them--only partly; but sthrive and see it before you go, sir, for there's them that says it isn't lucky to come to the cave and lave it without seein' the white throat. And if you're a bachelor, sir, and didn't get a peep at it, throth, you'd never be married, and sure that 'id be a murther."
"Oh," said I, "I hope the fairies would not be so spiteful--"
"Whisht, whisht!" said she, looking fearfully around; then, knitting her brows, she gave me an admonitory look, and put her finger on her lip, in token of silence, and then coming sufficiently near me to make herself audible in a whisper, she said, "Never speak ill, your honour, of the good people--beyant all, in sitch a place this--for it's in the likes they always keep; and one doesn't know who may be listenin'. God keep uz! But look, sir, look!" and she pointed to the stream--" there she is."
"Who--what?" said I.
"The throut, sir."
I immediately perceived the fish in question, perfectly a trout in shape, but in colour a creamy white, heading up the stream, and seeming to keep constantly within the region of the enlightened part of it.
"There it is, in that very spot evermore," continued my guide, "and never anywhere else."
"The poor fish, I suppose, likes to swim in the light," said I.
"Oh, no, sir," said she, shaking her head significantly, "the people here has a mighty owld story about that throut"
"Let me bear it, and you will oblige me."
"Och! it's only laughin' at me you'd be, and call me an ould fool, as the misthiss beyant in the big house often did afore, when she first kem among us--but she knows the differ now."
"Indeed I shall not laugh at your story," said I, "but on the contrary, shall thank you very much for your tale."
"Then sit down a minnit, sir," said she, throwing her apron upon the rock, and pointing to the seat, "and I'll tell you to the best of my knowledge." And seating herself on an adjacent patch of verdure, she began her legend.
"There was wanst upon a time, long ago, a beautiful young lady that lived in a castle up by the lake beyant, and they say she was promised to a king's son, and they wor to be married; when, all of a suddent, he was murthered, the crathur (Lord help us), and threwn into the lake abow, and so, of coorse, he couldn't keep his promise to the fair lady--and more's the pity.
"Well, the story goes that she went out iv her mind bekase av losin' the king's son; for she was tindher-hearted, God help her! like the rest iv us, and pined away after him, until, at last,no one about seen her, good or bad, and the story wint that the fairies took her away.
"Well, sir, in coorse o' time the white throut, God bless it! was seen in the sthrame beyant, and sure the people didn't know what to think av the crathur, seein' as how a white throut was never heerd av afore nor sence; and years upon years the throut was there, just where you seen it this blessed minnit, longer nor I can tell--aye, troth, and beyant the memory o' th' ouldest in the village.
"At last the people began to think it must be a fairy--for what else could it be?--and no hurt nor harm was iver put an the white throut, antil some wicked sinners of sojers kem to these parts, and laughed at all the people, and gibed and jeered them for thinkin' o' the likes; and one o' them in partic'lar (bad luck to him; God forgi' me for sayin' it!) swore he'd catch the throut and ate it for his dinner--the blackguard!
"Well, what would you think o' the villiany of the sojer?--Sure enough he cotch the throut; and away wid him home, and puts an the fryin'-pan, and into it he pitches the purty little thing. The throut squeeled all as one as a Christian crathur, and, my dear, you'd think the sojer id split his sides laughin'--for he was a harden'd villian; and when he thought one side was done, he turns it over to fry the other; and what would you think, but the divil a taste of a burn was an it at all at all; and sure the sojer thought it was a quare throut that couldn't be briled. 'But,' says he, 'I'll give it another turn, by-and-by '--little thinkin' what was in store for him--the haythen!
"Well, when he thought that side was done, he turns it again--and lo and behould you, the divil a taste more done that side was nor the other. 'Bad luck to me,' says the sojer, 'but that bates the world!' says he; 'but I'll thry you agin, my darlint,' says he, 'as cunnin' as you think yourself,'--and so, with that, he turns it over and over; but the divil a sign av the fire was an the purty throut. 'Well,' says the desperate villian (for sure, sir, only he was a desperate villian entirely, he might know he was doin' a wrong thing, seein' that all his endayvours was no good)--'well,' says he, 'my jolly little throut, maybe you're fried enough, though you don't seem over-well dress'd; but you may be better than you look, like a singed cat, and a tit-bit, afther all,' says he; and with that he ups with his knife and fork to taste a piece o' the throut--but, my jew'l, the minnit he puts his knife into the fish, there was a murthenin' screech, that you'd think the life id lave you if you heerd it, and away jumps the throut out av the fryin'-pan into the middle o' the flure; and an the spot where it fell, up riz a lovely lady--the beautifullest young crathur that eyes ever seen, dressed in white with a band o' goold in her hair, and a sthrame o' blood runnin' down her arm.
"Look where you cut me, you villian,' says she, and she held out her arm to him--and, my dear, he thought the sight id lave his eyes.
"Couldn't you lave me cool and comfortable in the river where you snared me, and not disturb me in my duty?' says she.
"Well, be thrimbled like a dog in a wet sack, and at last he stammered out somethin', and begged for his life, and ax'd her ladyship's pardin, and said he didn't know she was an duty, or he was too good a sojer not to know betther nor to meddle wid her.
"'I was on duty, then,' says the lady; 'I was watchin' for my thrue love, that is comin' by wather to me,' says she; 'an' if be comes while I am away, an' that I miss iv him, I'll turn you into a pinkeen, and I'll hunt you up and down for evermore, while grass grows or wather runs.'
"Well, the sojer thought the life id lave him at the thoughts iv his bein' turned into a pinkeen, and begged for mercy; and with that, says the lady:
"'Renounce your evil coorses,' says she, 'you villian, or you'll repint it too late; be a good man for the futhur, and go to your' duty reg'lar. And now,' says she, 'take me back, and put me into the river agin, where you found me.'
"'Oh, my lady,' says the sojer, 'how could I have the heart to drownd a beautiful lady like you?'
"But before he could say another word, the lady was vanished, and there he saw the little throut an the ground. Well, he put it an a clane plate, and away he run for the bare life, for fear her lover would come while she was away; and he run, and he run, ever till be came to the cave agin, and threw the throat into the river. The minnit he did, the wather was as red as blood for a little while, by raison av the cut, I suppose, until, the sthrame washed the stain away; and to this day there's a little red mark an the throut's side where it was cut.
"Well, sir, from that day out the sojer was an althered man, and reformed his way; and wint to his duty reg'lar, and fasted three times a week--though it was never fish he tuk an fastin' days; for afther the fright be got, fish id never rest an his stomach, God bless us!--savin' your presence. But anyhow, he was an althered man, as I said before; and in coorse o' time he left the army, and turned hermit at last; and they say he used to pray evermore for the sowl of the White Throut."