The Stars in the Water (Irish Folk Tale)

Folk Tales, Irish Folk Tales6049


This is to be another sort of chapter altogether. I am going to tell you now what happened. The eighteen years are gone now and we have come to the time when there is something to tell.

When those eighteen years began, you know, Kathleen and Terence were not much more than born. So, if you have got as far as addition and can add eighteen to nothing and find that it makes eighteen, you will see that by this time they were about eighteen years old. John O”Brien and his mother and Kathleen did not live on the east side of Central Park any more. John had got on better and better with the work that he was doing. After a while, instead of having to do work of common kinds any more, he had been put in charge of other men who were doing it. After another while he learned so much about the work and how it was done and how it ought to be done, that he was made one of the partners in the company that did it. So he got a good deal more money and he was able to take his mother and Kathleen out of the little tenement where she was born, and to live in a better place. Then he had a house of his own, over on the west side of the Park, and it was there that Kathleen lived when she was eighteen years old.

Peter had not got along so well. John himself employed him, but Peter knew enough to go only just so far, and there he stuck. He lived in a little better place than he did at first, but he could never make his way like John. And then Terence, as he grew up, made a good deal of trouble. He never would learn anything useful and he never would do anything useful. He never helped his father at all, and always his father had to help him. If there was any fight or any accident or anything troublesome or wrong within a mile, Terence was always in the midst of it. He was constantly getting his head and his ribs broken, and Peter was always having to pay for other people”s things that he had broken, from their heads to their windows.

Ellen”s excuse for him, that he was never well and had never been quite himself since he was born, was pretty well worn out. For, people said, he had always been exactly the same ever since he was born, and if that same was not himself, who was it? But Ellen kept saying it none the less. Many a time Mrs. O”Brien tried to make her believe that the boy was a changeling, and not her child at all, and many a time she begged Ellen to let her only try a charm to see if he was, but Ellen never would hear of it. She always said what she had said at first, that nobody knew him but her. She saw him better when she dreamed about him, for then she saw him as he really was, without all the harm that had been done to him by all the sickness that had been on him one time and another.

You might suppose that anybody who could play the fiddle as well as Terence need not have any trouble in making his own living. He might have found a place in a theatre, like the man whose fiddle he had played on first. He might have taught others to play. Or he might have played all by himself, and hundreds of people would have paid to hear him. But he would play only when he chose, and he would never do anything useful with his fiddle. And everybody said he played so wonderfully–everybody except Kathleen.

And this brings us back to Kathleen. Terence heard before he was many years old something about the plan that Peter and John had made, that he and Kathleen should be married when they grew up, if they both liked the plan. He seemed to forget all about this last part, “if they both liked the plan.” He liked the plan himself and he seemed to think that that was enough. He had talked about it to Kathleen many times, before they were both eighteen years old, and it troubled Kathleen so that she tried never to see Terence when she could possibly help it. She had always disliked him, though she had always tried not to show it; but as they got a little older and she found that there was no other way to keep away from him at all, she had to tell him so.

But do you suppose that made any difference with Terence? Well, it did make a difference with him, but he did not let anybody see that it did. When Kathleen told him for the first time that she did not like him at all, he went away by himself. He went straight to the hill that is in the north end of the Park, and there he threw himself down on his face on the grass. For hours he lay there, trembling and crying, and beating the ground with his feet and his fists. And it would take another book as large as this to tell all that he was saying to himself or to the grass, or to something under the grass–how can I tell? And you would not want to read the book. It is not likely that you will ever see anybody in such a rage as he was in. But at the end of it he stood up and looked just as he usually did, and went straight to the O”Briens” and stayed all the evening and kept as near Kathleen as he could, and stared at her all the time. And he talked to her then and afterward, just as if she had told him that she liked him better than anybody else that she knew.

So Kathleen had to go to her grandmother, as she always did when she was in any trouble, and tell her all about it. And her grandmother told her that she and Terence were both a good deal too young to think of anything of the sort, and that she would do all that she could to help her. But she could not do much. She told John about it, and he said that he should be sorry if the plan that he and Peter had made could not be carried out, but he would forbid it himself, as long as Terence was so lazy and so worthless and so bad as he was now. When he got a little older, he hoped that everything would be better, and there was no hurry about anything.

And though Terence made her so much trouble, Kathleen had many other things to think about. She went to school and learned a great deal, and her grandmother taught her a great deal more. Her grandmother told her stories still, and, though she was nearly eighteen and felt that she was getting so dreadfully old, she still liked stories. Then she had a good many friends, and she spent much of her time with them. She visited Ellen often, too, going to see her at times when she thought that Terence would not be at home. Ellen and Peter still lived on the east side of the Park, and some of her friends lived there, too, so that Kathleen often walked through the north end of the Park, near that hill that I have told you about so many times before.

Kathleen was fond of this part of the Park, as everybody is who knows it. But especially she was fond of one little spot that nobody else seemed to notice much. So Kathleen got a feeling that this one place belonged to her, and she was all the more fond of it because of that. It was a tiny little basin of water, near the path, but up a grassy bank. On the side toward the path it was all open, but on the other side there were rocks, and out of a little cleft in the rocks ran a bit of a stream of water that fed the little basin. Then, around the rocks and over them there was more grass, and the hill rose at both sides and above. On the edge of the hill, right over the basin, was a pine-tree, and around it were other trees. Their branches came together over the water and almost shut out the sky from it, but not quite.

Every time that Kathleen passed it, she went up the bank and looked into the still water. She had a feeling that if she ever went by and did not do this the water would miss her and would feel hurt. When she did this by daylight and in summer, if she stood up and looked into the water, she could see a patch of branches and green leaves and blue sky through them, about as big as the basin itself, and that was scarcely larger than a fair-sized tub. But if she stooped down close to the water and looked into it, she saw that there was a great deal of sky under it, below the trees, which grew upside down. There was almost as much sky under the water as she could see above it, and she believed that there would prove to be quite as much if she could only get her head where she could see it.

She used to look in at night sometimes, too, and try to see if there were any stars in that sky; but in the summer she never could see any, because the leaves on the trees were so thick that they almost hid the sky, and they seemed to be thicker and to hide the sky more by night than they did by day. In the winter it was different. Then there were no leaves, but only branches and twigs, which covered the sky like lace work, and through these Kathleen sometimes thought that she could see a star or two in the water, but she was seldom quite sure. Yet she never passed the place without looking in it, to see the green leaves and the blue sky or the black leaves and the almost black sky, or the stars, if she could find any.


On a certain day–the last day of April it was–there was a good deal of excitement in the fairy palace under the hill. The reason of it was that a new fairy had come to live there. Perhaps you never heard of a baby fairy. I have read a good many stories about fairies that said nothing about any such thing. Now, you needn”t try to be so bright about it and say that of course there must be baby fairies, or there could not be any grown-up fairies. That isn”t so at all. Fairies are not like men about growing old and dying and other fairies taking their places. I have heard of a fairy funeral, but I can”t imagine how it happened, and I think that the story about it must have been a mistake. If you have read this book as far as here, you know that most fairies are thousands of years old, and you know, too–for Naggeneen has told you–what is likely to become of them in the end. Still, there is no sort of doubt that now and then a new fairy is born, and there was one born on this day. He was the son of the King and the Queen, and you can guess well enough that a fairy prince is a person of some consequence.

“What will we do at all for a nurse for the baby?” said the Queen.

“What will we do at all?” said the King.

“It never would do for me to have the care of him at the first,” said the Queen.

“Never a bit,” said the King; “it would ruin him.”

“How would it ruin him?” said the Queen.

“Never a know I know, no more nor you,” said the King, “but you know as well as I it would ruin him.”

“Why can”t I care for my own child?” said the Queen, “the same as a human mother does?”

“I dunno,” said the King, “only we know you can”t. We”ve never dared try, to see what would happen. He must have a human nurse. Maybe it”s something to do with them things Naggeneen was always talking about our having no souls–”

“Don”t be talking about Naggeneen,” said the Queen, “and me not well at all.” Then she was silent for a little while and then she went on talking about Naggeneen herself. “Are you sorry he left us?”

“Who?” said the King.

“Naggeneen,” said the Queen.

“I'm not sorry,” said the King. “We”ve more peace without him. Though he was clever and he often told us the right thing to do and he might tell us the right thing to do now.”

“Did he tell us the right thing to do when he told us to bring Terence here to learn the ways of men and to teach them to us?”

“Sure Terence is a good boy,” said the King, “and he plays the fiddle as well as Naggeneen himself, so we don”t miss Naggeneen for the only thing that he was good for. And Terence is easier to have about other ways.”

“But has he ever learned the ways of men and taught them to us?” the Queen asked.

The King was getting annoyed. “He has learned them, I think,” he said, “but he has never taught them to us. And you know Naggeneen himself said the plan would be no use.”

“He did,” said the Queen; “only you would try it. And just so all this talk is no use. What will we do for a nurse for the baby?”

“We”ll find one some way,” the King answered. “Was you thinking of anyone in particular?”

“I was not thinking of anyone in particular.”

“How would Kathleen O”Brien do, do you think?” the King asked.

“I don”t want to be troubling the O”Briens,” the Queen said, “and they always so kind to us.”

“It would not be troubling them much; we”ld only keep her a little while and they”ld hardly miss her.”

“If she was once here,” said the Queen, “some one of your men would want to keep her, and it would break the heart of her grandmother. So it would her father”s, too, but I'm not thinking so much of him.”

“We”ll not keep her,” said the King, “only as long as the child needs her.”

“You say that now,” said the Queen; “it would be different if she was once here–I'ld like to have her as well as anyone I know.”

“We could find no one else so good,” said the King. “It”s May Eve, you mind. There”s no time when we have more power, and few when we have so much. We”ll all be dancing to-night, and Kathleen often passes along just about dark. It”s likely we could get her to dance with us, and then we”ld be sure enough of her. If that fails, there”s other ways. Our power lasts till sunrise.”

“And you think we”ld not be keeping her long?” said the Queen.

“We”ld have her home almost before she was missed,” the King answered.

“I wouldn”t mind if you tried,” said the Queen.

Kathleen had been to visit Ellen. She was on her way home through the Park, and she had meant to get there before dark, but it was a little later than she had thought, and she saw the red in the sky before her getting darker and duller every minute. As she walked along she saw two other girls of about her own age, whom she knew, in front of her. She overtook them and the three walked on together, though the others could scarcely keep up, Kathleen hurried so.

When they were nearly through the Park they came to the little basin where the water ran down out of the rock. Though she wanted to get home so quickly, she could not pass this place without going up the bank and looking into the water, because she felt so sure that if she did not the water would miss her and feel hurt. She ran up the bank and looked into the still little pool. The other girls went on, and she heard one of them call after her: “Thought you were in a hurry!”

Kathleen did not mind them, but only looked into the water, which was almost black, it was getting so dark all around. She had not seen the water look so dark in a long time. She looked up over her head and she saw that it was because the little new leaves had begun to come out on the trees and were beginning to hide the sky. She saw one or two of the brightest stars, that had already come out in the sky, and she looked back into the water and tried to see them there, but she could not find them. There was nothing but the little, still, black pool.

She went back to the path and ran on after the other girls. She saw them walking on slowly, only a little way ahead of her. Just as she had nearly come up with them she stood still to look at a wonderful sight. She just thought dimly that it was strange that the other girls were not watching it, too, but the sight itself excited her so that she had not much time to think of that. On the grass, close beside the path, there were ever so many boys and girls–at least she thought at first that they were boys and girls–dancing. The grass in that place sloped upward from the path, and the ground was a little hollowed, in a sort of shell shape. All around the place, except where the path was, trees and bushes hung over the grass. The buds were just opening here, too, and the air was full of the smell of the new spring grass and leaves, which always grows stronger in the evening.

Kathleen stood gazing at the boys and girls dancing. There were so many of them that she could not count them. She thought that they seemed to be a little younger and smaller than herself. The boys all wore green jackets and red caps. When she looked at them more closely she could not tell whether they were boys at all or not. They looked more like old men. And she could scarcely believe that either, because they danced so fast and seemed so lively. Her father could not dance like that, she was sure, and he was not an old man.

But she had no doubt that the girls were girls. Usually she could not tell a pretty girl from an ugly one, any more than any other girl can, but she knew that these were pretty. Anybody would. They had long, golden hair that hung all loose and free and came down to their knees, when the little wind did not blow it away in some other direction. They had deep, soft eyes. They were dressed in long, white gowns, so white that they shone, now like a sheet of pale light and now with a hundred little sparkles, as the water of the sea does sometimes, when it is broken into foam by the prow of a ship. All the men carried lanterns and all the girls had something that looked like long flower-stems, only there were tiny lights on the ends of them, instead of flowers. These and the lanterns did not seem to trouble them at all in dancing, and if Kathleen had seen the lights and had not seen the dancers, she would have thought that they were a swarm of fireflies.

She had scarcely stood there for a minute before one of the men came up to her and asked her to dance with him. Kathleen”s first thought was that she ought to be afraid, and her second thought was that she was not afraid a bit. She liked dancing and she had just been wishing that she could dance with these boys and girls. Then she wondered if it was quite right. Then she could not see what there could be wrong about it. Then she let the little man take her hand and she stepped off the path upon the grass and began to dance. She heard the other girls calling to her again, farther up the path. She called back to them: “I am coming in a minute! Wait for me!” And then she went on dancing.

When she had been only looking on, the dancing had seemed to Kathleen to be quite wonderful, but now she found that she could do it all nearly as well as the little boys and girls. She thought that it might be because the little old man was a better partner for dancing than she had ever had before. They danced around by themselves, moving in and out among the others, no matter how close together they were, and always finding their way, now in the midst of the whole company and now out beyond the very edge of it, and then suddenly all the dancers would join hands and whirl about in a great circle, so fast that Kathleen could not tell whether her feet were touching the ground at all.

It seemed to her that she had never done anything so delightful before. She did not think of going on with the other girls any more. She did not think of getting home early, or of anything but the dancing. She could not tell at all how long she had been dancing, but it was all dark, except for the little lanterns and the little lights on the flower-stems, and the stars were all out in the sky. And then somebody said: “It is time to go.”

The man who had been dancing with Kathleen whispered to her: “You are to go with us.”

And Kathleen thought of nothing but of going with the queer little old men and the beautiful little girls. They all left the shell-shaped grass-plot and moved along together–Kathleen could scarcely tell even now whether her feet were on the ground or not–over the grass, till they came to a little pool of water–Kathleen”s own little pool.

She looked down into it, and there was no doubt about the stars now. There were hundreds of them down under the water, shining up through it from as far below, it seemed, as the stars in the sky were up above. The dancers who came to it first stepped on the surface of the pool, and it bore them up as if it had been a floor of glass. Then Kathleen saw that the rocks behind the pool were not as she had ever seen them before. There was an opening straight into the hill, and when she came nearer still she saw that the water was no longer a little pool. It was more like a long, narrow lake, and it covered the bottom of the opening that led into the hill. All the people were going in, walking along the path of water as easily as if it had been a path of ice.

Again it seemed to Kathleen that she ought to be afraid, and again it seemed to her, still more clearly, that she was not afraid. When she came to the water she put her foot upon it and walked along it as easily as the others were doing. She thought that she would remember that this water could be walked on, and would try it the next day. She had never thought of trying it before.

But now she and the others were moving along the path into the hill. It was still dark, except for the lights that they carried and the stars that shone up through the water. And these were not the reflection of any stars in the sky, for there was no sky to be seen over them now–only rocks. Then there was a pale violet light shining on the walls of the passage ahead of them. Then, as Kathleen looked down at the water again, to see if she were really walking on it, she saw that there were no more stars, but the water was of a faint, shining yellow, and in a moment she was not walking on water any more, but on a floor, that seemed to her to be all of gold.

She could do nothing now but stand still and look around at the wonderful sight. All around her were walls of silver, so bright that they reflected everything in the great hall, and she could not tell at all how large it was. But she made out that in the middle was a great dome, held up by the most wonderful gleaming columns of gold and silver, first a column of gold and then a column of silver, and these she saw again and again in the walls all about. She could not see the top of the dome from where she stood, it was so high, but all around the sides of it she saw great diamonds and rubies and emeralds, some of them as big as her head, that poured down soft white and red and green lights, and these she saw, too, shining up, a little dimmer, from the gold of the floor, which was almost as good a mirror as the walls.

The sides of the dome, in which the jewels were set, were all of bands and lines and ribbons of gold and silver, wonderfully woven together into shapes and patterns which she could not follow or trace out with her eyes, because they seemed to be always slowly moving–turning and twisting and winding and wreathing about, never for a moment the same, but always new and always beautiful. And when this was reflected in the golden floor it was like the wavering shapes in water that is almost still, but yet has little waves that dance and break up every reflection that is seen in it.

And still, although she saw no lamps except the great white and red and green gems, there came from somewhere–perhaps from the top of the dome, she thought–that violet light that she had seen first on the walls of the passage, and it filled the whole hall, like the glow of a glorious sunset that never faded. And all this was inside a hill that Kathleen had known all the years of her life, and she had never seen anything wonderful about it.


While Kathleen is wondering at the fairy palace I will explain to you the subject which you have been wondering about. If you only knew more we could get on with the story so much faster. It is most annoying. And you have been brought up so well too! I don”t see that it is anybody”s fault but your own. You have been wondering all along how it was that the fairies seemed to Kathleen to be, as I said, only a little smaller than herself, when you have always heard that fairies were so very little.

Well, to think of your not understanding that! I am bound to say that when I was of your age I was just as ignorant about it as you are now, but then, children now have a good many more advantages than they had in my day. Considering how few advantages we had, it is a great credit to people of my age that we know anything at all, and, considering how many of them you have, it is a disgrace to you that you do not know everything.

When I was a child I used to read about fairies, and the book would say that they were six inches tall, or that they were about as big as a man”s thumb, or it would tell about their sitting in flowers. And then I would look at the pictures and they would appear to be as high as a man”s knees, or even higher. And I could not understand it. But I made up my mind to find out about it. That is what you must do, when there is anything that you don”t understand. There are very few things that you can”t do, if you make up your mind to them, except things that are too hard for you. I hate to have morals getting into a story as much as you do, but that is such a good one that it might as well go in.

Now I will tell you. Fairies can be of any size they like, and you never can tell what size they are going to be, from one minute to another. They can be giants, if they like. And as soon as they had Kathleen with them they could make her of any size they liked too. So as long as she was among them they could keep her and themselves just the same size, or as near to it as they liked.

But when fairies are not taking the trouble to be of any particular size–when they are letting themselves alone, as you might say–then they are about six inches tall. And I think that is a very good size to be. It would be better if you were of that size. You wouldn”t eat so much and you wouldn”t be so much in the way, and you would be much better-looking. Just think: if your face were only three-quarters of an inch long, all those features of it that are so disagreeable wouldn”t show so plainly. You might even look rather pretty. You wouldn”t need to be so, but you might look so.

And it would be so much easier to know where you were, if you were of that size, that it would save your mother a good deal of trouble. All she would have to do would be to put you on the mantelpiece, and then you could not get off without breaking your necks–and that would be such an advantage. I don”t mean that it would be an advantage to break your necks, because then who would read this book, and why should I take all this trouble to write it? I mean, it would be an advantage that you could not get off. Well, now you see how much better off you would be if you were only six inches tall, and now you understand about the fairies.


While Kathleen was still wondering at the place that she was in, a man whom she had not seen before came up to her. He wore a crown, and she guessed at once that he was some sort of king. It did not surprise her to see a man with a crown. A man with a church steeple on his head would not have surprised her, by this time. “Come with me,” he said; “you”re wanted at once.”

Kathleen followed him to the opposite side of the hall and through a door, into another room. It was much smaller than the hall, but it was just as beautiful, in its own way. There was a woman in this room–another of the beautiful girls, Kathleen would have said:lying on a gold couch. Her hair was hanging down over the pillow on which her head lay, so that Kathleen could scarcely tell which was the hair and which was the gold of the couch. There was a crown lying on a little table beside her, and so Kathleen guessed that she was the Queen. “Kathleen,” said the Queen, “do you know why they have brought you here?”

“No, Your Majesty,” said Kathleen. She was not a bit frightened, any more than she had been all along, and she knew that that was the way to speak to a queen, just as well as if she had never spoken to anybody else in her life.

“They brought you here, then,” said the Queen, “to take care of my baby; but he”ll not need you long, and then you can be going back home.”

“I'm afraid,” Kathleen said, “that I don”t know how to take care of a baby very well. I might do something wrong with it. You see my mother died when I was born, and so I was the only baby that there ever was at our house, and I have hardly ever had anything to do with a real live baby.”

“You”ve had something to do with them that was not alive, haven”t you?” the Queen asked.

Kathleen smiled a little at that. “There were fifteen of them, I think,” she said.

“Well, you”ll be having no more trouble with this one,” the Queen said, “than with any of those fifteen. Only do as you”re told. I can”t take care of it myself, because it”s the law that it must have a nurse that”s a mort–I mean it must have a nurse from outside this place. There”s the baby in the cradle there. Try can you make him go to sleep.”

Kathleen went to the cradle and looked at the baby. It was wide awake and it stared at her like a little owl. Except for that, it looked like any other baby. The way that the baby stared at her came nearer to making Kathleen afraid than anything that she had seen yet. But she took him out of the cradle, sat down on a low seat that she found, began to rock him gently, and sang an old song that her grandmother used to sing to her and that she had sung to her own fifteen babies many a time.

It was scarcely an instant before the baby was asleep. She put him back into the cradle and then turned to the Queen and said: “Shall I do anything more?”

“Not now,” said the King; “come now and have something to eat and drink with us.”

The Queen started at this and cried: “No, no!” but Kathleen did not know what she meant. She knew that she was very hungry, and she followed the King out of the room, back into the hall. Tables had been brought into the hall now, and they were all covered with things to eat that looked very good, and the men and women were sitting at the tables, eating and drinking and talking and laughing. They all stood up as the King came in, and waited till he had taken his place at the head of the table, and then they all sat down again, and the eating and drinking and talking and laughing went on.

One of the men led Kathleen to a seat and put something to eat and drink before her. She did not know what it was, but it looked good. She was just going to taste it, when somebody touched her on the shoulder and somebody said: “Don”t eat that; don”t taste a bit of it.”

She looked around and saw a boy–perhaps she would have said a young man–standing behind her. He was very different from all the other men. He did not look old, as they did. She thought that he was of about her own age, and he was taller than she, while all the others were shorter. “Don”t eat anything or drink anything that they give you,” he said again. “I will give you something to eat.”

He sat down beside her and put a little package on the table before them. He opened it and took out some bread and meat, some strawberries, a little flask full of cream, and a larger one full of water. He gave Kathleen a part of all these and kept a part for himself. “I am not sure,” Kathleen said, “that I ought to let you talk to me, because, you see, I don”t know who you are.”

She had let several people talk to her that evening, without knowing who they were, but this boy seemed to be somehow altogether different.

“My name is Terence,” he said. “Now I know you are going to ask “Terence what?” It”s Terence nothing; I have no name at all except Terence.”

“I know a boy named Terence,” Kathleen said, “and I don”t like him a bit.”

“I hope that won”t make any difference about your liking me,” said the boy.

“Oh, not at all,” said Kathleen. “It isn”t his name that I don”t like; it”s himself. He is only just as old as I am, and he looks–” Kathleen stopped, surprised at herself, for she had not thought of it before. “He looks a little like these men here, who all seem to be so old; and, besides, he isn”t nice at all.”

“Then let”s not talk about him,” said the boy. “Will you tell me what your name is?”

“Oh, yes; didn”t I tell you? My name is Kathleen O”Brien.”

“And must I call you Kathleen or Miss O”Brien? You see you will have to call me by my first name, because it is the only one I have, and so I think you ought to let me call you by your first name.”

“But if you have only one name,” Kathleen said, “it is your last name just as much as it is your first, so perhaps you ought to call me by my last one.”

“Oh, no,” Terence answered; “you see my name ought to be a first name, only I haven”t any last one, so I think I ought t



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