An Inquisitive Mortal
Lanty M'Lorn was one of those rare individuals who loved knowledge purely for its own sake. Not profitable knowledge be it understood, for the little he possessed of this world's goods--a cow and a few acres of ground to supply himself and his family with milk and potatoes--amply satisfied him. But information which could be of no possible use to any human being was that for which his soul was ever thirsty. The price of people's clothes, the places they went to, how much they sold their sheep or cattle for, the fortunes they obtained with their wives or gave to their daughters, were subjects of the deepest interest and the most painstaking research to Lanty; while he envied beyond bounds the doctor in the sickroom, the lawyer in his office, and even, be it reverently said, the priest in the confessional, the secrets of their respective callings. If a stranger chanced to stop him on the road to ask the way somewhere, Lanty would forget to answer in his eagerness to know who his interrogator was, and what he wanted to the place inquired for. In a few words, Lanty M'Lorn was inquisitive beyond all reason, and his eagerness to gratify his weakness knew no bounds.
Had he learned to read, he might have become a great scientist or historian. Had he entered Parliament, he would have employed the whole Ministry all their time answering his questions. But he was quite illiterate, and spent his life in a remote Irish valley, to which strangers rarely penetrated, surrounded by the silence of the everlasting hills, and by an intellectual environment almost as antique.
Yet even such a region has more of mystery than one man may unravel in a lifetime. Lanty tried very hard for over twenty years to find out everyone's affairs, and still the ever-increasing stock of unattainable information grew and grew around him. People were continually dying or marrying, or going to America, or getting clothed, or visiting their friends, or quarrelling with their enemies, and it kept a man perpetually bothered finding out how much money they left or got or parted with, not to mention all they said, or the number of glasses of whisky they consumed in the course of a festive gathering.
"It takes me all my time to watch," he complained to himself, "an' as for findin' out the thousand things they do, begorra! it bates a man entirely!"
Among the curiosities of Lanty's patch of farm was a small dun, or fairy mound, which he knew contained many odd things if he had only time to excavate them, the chief of which was a live fairy, who had appeared from time to time and told strange tales to those who met with her. Lanty had often lingered round the place in hopes of falling in with this uncommon personage, but never with success, till, one morning when returning from an unsuccessful journey to the blacksmith's forge beyond the hill to discover why a neighbor's horse and cart had been so late upon the road the night before, he sat down beside the mound and fell asleep. In his sleep he dreamt the fairy came and offered him a gift by which he could discover everything that happened in the neighborhood on condition of his leaving a drink of clean spring water outside his door every night before going to bed. Lanty in his dream refused the offer, and the refusal so annoyed him when he awoke that he forthwith ran home for a spade, and commenced digging into the fort in hopes that he might overtake the fairy and close the bargain with her on the spot.
He had not dug far when he came upon a flat stone, which, upon removal, revealed a narrow passage leading to the interior of the mound. He got down into this passage, and, by much crawling on his hands and knees, made his way into a small circular chamber. Daylight could not enter anywhere that he could notice. Nevertheless a clear soft radiance filled the cave, revealing to his eyes the fairy of his dream sleeping on a bed of rushes.
Lanty gazed long and earnestly at the tithe figure of the fairy, covered with a soft green mantle, and ringleted with locks of gold. He tried to speak, but could not. A spell of silence seemed to bind his tongue. Then he thought that if he, too, slept, the enchantment would become complete and the tempting offer be renewed. The thought bore instant fruit. Before he had sufficient time to stretch himself upon the ground a deep sleep fell upon him, or rather a trance, for his sight and speech remained as in his waking moments.
Presently the fairy rose and touched Lanty on the shoulder. "I knew that you would come," she said smilingly. "The thirst for knowledge draws mortals farther than this."
"I'm here, fairy miss," he answered, briskly rising. "I hope I may be welcome."
"Welcome as the flowers of May," the fairy answered. "If you were not welcome I would not be here."
"You're me darlin', honey," Lanty cried enthusiastically.
The fairy smiled. "I'm not an earthly colleen," she said softly. "You may keep your blarney for the likes of them. You and I are here on business--aren't we?"
"To be sure we are!" Lanty acquiesced. "But mayn't we as well thransact it in a pleasant spirit, sweetie?"
"You're an agreeable man," the fairy returned, evidently pleased. "Your philosophy is sound. You no doubt inherit it from an ancient senachie from whom you are descended."
"Indeed, miss, I didn't know I was discinded at all," Lanty modestly remarked. "I'm only one o' the common soart."
"And they, Mr. M'Lorn, have all an ancestry would disgrace many an Eastern king."
"I'm grieved to hear it, fairy darlin', but it can't be helped. We must put up with our ould ancesthors, I'm fearin'."
"You mistake me," said the fairy, frowning. "I meant it as a compliment. But let us get to business. You want to know what goes on all round you, I believe?"
"If it's plazin' to you, miss. I have a powerful wakeness for knowledge intirely."
"Listen, then. On condition that you leave a drink of clean water outside your door every night for the benefit of wandering souls I'll amply reward you."
"I'd lave it out for nothin'," Lanty generously interrupted, "if I knew they wanted it. I would that!"
"I'm aware of that, or you would not be alive this moment. Attend. I'll give you a shell, and when you put it to your ear you can hear everything said within the circuit of these hills. You can, in fact, hear the grass growing."
"That's me darlin'! I'll not be needin' to be axin' questions now. It never was agreeable work, but sure a body couldn't always avoid it."
"I'll give you a leaf of sorrel, and when you place it in your mouth, you'll feel the taste of every dinner in the parish."
"Betther an' betther!" Lanty cried. "But can't you let me see as well as taste now? It 'id be more satisfying."
"I'm doubtful how that would work," the fairy dubiously replied. "The gift might prove uncomfortable."
"Throth! I'm not the laist afraid to risk it--if it's all the same to you, ma'am. Begob! If a body didn't see they'd be nowhere at all sometimes."
"Very well," the fairy answered. "I'll give you an acorn, which when rubbed to your eyes will let you see all that goes on as far as you can hear and taste."
"That bates all! I'll now see the soart o' linin' there's in Jack Sullivan's new topcoat. I couldn't find it out last Sunday, though I knelt purposely behind him in the chapel. He kept the coat buttoned all the time."
"Why didn't you cut a hole?" the fairy asked.
Lanty started. "How did you know I wanted to do that?" he demanded.
"Oh, I had the acorn I speak of, and saw you searching for your penknife. But the charm doesn't enable one to see steel, so I couldn't tell how it ended."
"That's a pity," Lanty murmured, regretful that anything should escape observation. "I had the misfortune to lave my knife at home in me ould coat. That's why I didn't see the linin'."
"Well, you'll soon see now," the fairy retorted. "is there anything else that you would like?"
"I think that I'll be doin' wid these," Lanty replied. "Can't you give them to me at oncet?"
"No," the fairy said. "I must make them for you, and that is beyond my power till the moon is at the full."
"And how long may that be, fairy acushla?"
"Only three days," she answered. "Do you think you can survive so long?"
"Oh, I suppose I must," he sighed. "Only be sure and not disappoint me. It's a dhreadful thrial to be kept waitin'."
"You may rely on what I say--I'm not a mortal."
Lanty endeavoured to grasp the fairy's hand in gratitude, but she vanished at his touch, as a soap bubble from the grasp of a child.
The next three days were the longest days of Lanty's life. He knew not what events--all undiscovered--might be transpiring around him. The third morning found him at the mound, armed with his spade in case further digging for the fairy might be necessary. To his relief she appeared on his approach, rising as it were from the emerald bank without disturbing a blade of grass in doing so. Lanty's delight at first deprived him of speech, but his observation was keen almost to the verge of rapture. He stretched out both hands. The fairy treasures floated into them as lightly as the down of the ragweed floats upon the air. Grateful as the peasant felt to the bright donor his heart was in the gift alone. He fixed his gaze a moment on the shell, the sorrel leaf, the little acorn, and when he looked up the fairy was nowhere to be seen.
He tossed the trifles in his palm, marvelling how such tiny things could possess unbounded power. "I wonder which I ought to thry first?" he thought. With all his eagerness to test their virtues, he remained some moments doubtful where he should begin. "I think I'll listen first, in the name o' God," he decided, sitting down where he was and putting the shell to his ear. He thought it was a hurricane that burst above his head. The trees roared, the wind howled, the waters of the little stream below boomed like thunder, and under these there came the hum of bees like myriad spinning wheels, the larks shrieked overhead, the rooks cawed with throats of iron, while the weird, unearthly cadence of the growing grass like rushing of reeds along a boat's side was the strangest sound of all. It was horrible to listen to. Ghastly, creepy, multitudinous! It smote the ear as the first glimmer of the infinite smites the troubled soul.
Lanty drew the shell from his ear, a vacant, helpless look upon his countenance. What had he to do with mighty secrets like these? But the fairy wound not have deceived him. He knew enough of fairy lore to rely implicitly on her promises. He had first listened at the larger end of the shell. He would now try the point of it. The wonder was reversed. Sweet, attenuated, but familiar sounds gave place to elemental turmoil. The babble of the children at play, the bleating of the sheep upon the hills, the chattering of gossips round the firesides, came distinctly, however faintly, to his ear. In a little while he discovered that by centering his attention on one particular group or person he could hear what that group or person was saying. It was charming! It was heavenly! Then it grew a trifle wearisome. They talked of very paltry things for the most. Some even talked of him. This was interesting, till he discovered that their language was invariably uncomplimentary. In the course of half-an-hour he found that he, Lanty M'Lorn, was the most inquisitive meddlesome, good-for-nothing fellow in the county; that he was a disgrace to his decent wife (this was from his wife's especial friend), a hypocrite, and the earthly incarnation of lies. The only one who seemed to have a good word for him was a surly old neighbor with whom he was for ever quarrelling.
"That's a nice character I have!" he sighed, taking down the shell. If I listen any longer I'll be findin' out that I killed my gran'mother, and maybe stole a chalice. I wondher now what other people are when they're not listenin' to the conversation?"
He tried again, thinking first of one neighbour, then of another, and was much consoled to find they fared nearly all as badly as himself.
"That's fairplay at any rate. I'll have a look now an' see how things appear to an eye that has a good wide range."
He rubbed his eyelids with the acorn, and the first object he beheld was the inside of his own cabin. His wife was busy at the washtub, washing for himself and seven children. Work was continually interrupted by her being obliged to run out to look if the cow had strayed across the broken fence, to mend the fire, to see the potatoes in the boiling pot were not being spoiled, to lift the infant out of a puddle at the door, to drive a neighbour's pig out of the garden, to give a handful of meal to a beggar at the door, to pull on an old shoe which was dropping off her foot at almost every step.
"She's thriminjis busy," he thought. "I must help her a bit to-morrow--the crather!"
Then Lanty thought of Darby Shanagan's box, and wondered how much cash was in it, Darby having the character of a miser. To his astonishment the box was almost empty. It contained an old shirt, a pair of stockings, a horseshoe, and three pounds ten in silver.
"And they said he had a hundred! I'll never believe a word I hear again," Lanty muttered. "I wondher there doesn't come another Flood. Let me see Tom Rooney's chest. Ah! I always thought that ould boy a rogue. Why, he has five an' twinty poun's--an' he gettin' relief these seven years from the parish! Oh! Jack Sullivan's topcoat! Begorra, it hasn't any linin' at all--the desaver o' the world, and it is so grand outside. Throth, I think afther all I'm the only honest body myself--God help us!"
Lanty continued his investigation some time longer, surprised to find so many coffers empty which he imagined to be always full, and to see the pains that people took to hide their poverty. Only for his own good wife he would have lost confidence in mankind at large. Then he turned his mind to those whose station was above his own. The first person he beheld in this sphere was Father Ned, his parish priest, who was sitting down to dinner with Mr. Brogan, the wealthy miller. This reminded our friend of his sorrel leaf, and, anxious to taste the good things he beheld, he placed it in his mouth. At first he enjoyed with unbounded satisfaction the flavour of the meat, but, as the worthy gentlemen became replenished, Lanty's appetite increased. He tasted fully, but he was not filled; he drank, but was not comforted; and, at the termination of the meal, he felt more ravenous than he had ever been in all his days before.
"Why, this is worse nor black fastin'," he sighed. "I'm as impty as a quarry hole. Food in other people's stomach is no good to me. It's worse nor no good--it's upsettin' to the liver. It's--why, it's curiosity. Be the powers, it's my ould complaint in a new form. I wish now I could feel, as well as taste."
A shadow seemed to cross him. He looked up. It was the fairy.
"Give me, fairy dear," he cried, "the power to feel as well as see an' taste an' hear!"
She touched him on the shoulder, saying--"Your wish is granted," and forthwith disappeared.
Lanty's first thought was of the gentlemen who had dined. A torpor fell upon him wearisome to bear. At the same moment the miller's man approached, calling for his master's aid to lift some sacks of grain on to the kiln, and, hateful as it was to move, Lanty was compelled to endure the torture. A little later, the priest was called upon to visit a sick person miles away. The trudge across the hill was so disheartening that our friend was glad to drop the priest's fatigue and recline beside old Squire Langley, who passed his reverence riding in a carriage.
"I'm not used to beef," thought Lanty. "it unfits a man for walking. How snug the squire looks! I wonder how he likes it?"
Three minutes' torture of the gout made Lanty long to feel like the lame beggar coming up the road. But the beggar had rheumatic pains and a cough, and almost everybody else he tried suffered some way, especially those he had formerly envied most for their easy, pleasant lives.
"I don't see what's the use o' knowin' things. Knowledge of this soart's not a bit o' use to me," Lanty said, putting down his treasures.
"You never asked foe useful knowledge all your life," the fairy said, once more appearing.
"All the knowledge o' this world isn't any use," was Lanty's reply. "I wish I had some knowledge of the other place."
"The world beyond the grave?" the fairy asked.
"There's somethin' there worth knowin'," Lanty said. "I'm sick of everybody here. Why can't you let me have a peep behind that curtain?"
"Certainly!" the fairy responded cheerfully. "Eat this berry and you'll know it all--more than even I can tell you. When you look there you'll want to see or know no more. Your mouth will be open with astonishment. Your eyes will stare for ever."
"Why, you, don't want to kill me?" Lanty gasped in terror. "You spake to me of death."
"Death is nothing more than gazing on eternity. The eyes that glance upon that scene can no more look back to earth than the bird can return to the egg it came from. Do you wish to penetrate the mystery?"
"No! no!" Lanty sobbed, falling on his knees. "Spare me! I want to know no more. I know enough already."
"As you will," the fairy answered solemnly. "Knowledge is a glorious thing to those who use it wisely, but to the fool all things are folly. Fare you well."
The voice died down the valley like an echo. When Lanty rose, the night had fallen. He was shivering with cold.
He walked home slowly. Next day he came back and filled up the hole in the mound, and for many weeks he went about dejected.
When his cheerfulness returned, he showed no inclination to inquire about anyone's affairs, If gossips spoke to him he shook his head, saying it did not matter. He told them if they had seen as much as he they wouldn't be inquisitive. They laughed at this, declaring he had invented every word of it. He did not deign to answer.
But Lanty never goes to rest without placing a jug of clean spring water outside on his window-sill.