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Usheen In The Island Of Youth Post by :nparekh Category :Short Stories Author :Thomas Wentworth Higginson Date :May 2011 Read :2890

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Usheen In The Island Of Youth

The old Celtic hero and poet Usheen or Oisin, whose supposed songs are known in English as those of Ossian, lived to a great old age, surviving all others of the race of the Feni, to which he belonged; and he was asked in his last years what had given him such length of life. This is the tale he told:--

After the fatal battle of Gavra, in which most of the Feni were killed, Usheen and his father, the king, and some of the survivors of the battle were hunting the deer with their dogs, when they met a maiden riding on a slender white horse with hoofs of gold, and with a golden crescent between his ears. The maiden's hair was of the color of citron and was gathered in a silver band; and she was clad in a white garment embroidered with strange devices. She asked them why they rode slowly and seemed sad, and not like other hunters; and they replied that it was because of the death of their friends and the ruin of their race. When they asked her in turn whence she came, and why, and whether she was married, she replied that she had never had a lover or a husband, but that she had crossed the sea for the love of the great hero and bard Usheen, whom she had never seen. Then Usheen was overcome with love for her, but she said that to wed her he must follow her across the sea to the Island of Perpetual Youth. There he would have a hundred horses and a hundred sheep and a hundred silken robes, a hundred swords, a hundred bows, and a hundred youths to follow him; while she would have a hundred maidens to wait on her. But how, he asked, was he to reach this island? He was to mount her horse and ride behind her. So he did this, and the slender white horse, not feeling his weight, dashed across the waves of the ocean, which did not yield beneath his tread. They galloped across the very sea, and the maiden, whose name was Niam, sang to him as they rode, and this so enchantingly that he scarcely knew whether hours passed or days. Sometimes deer ran by them over the water, followed by red-eared hounds in full chase; sometimes a maiden holding up an apple of gold; sometimes a beautiful youth; but they themselves rode on always westward.

At last they drew near an island which was not, Niam said, the island they were seeking; but it was one where a beautiful princess was kept under a spell until some defender should slay a cruel giant who held her under enchantment until she should either wed him or furnish a defender. The youth Usheen, being an Irishman and not easily frightened, naturally offered his services as defender, and they waited three days and nights to carry on the conflict. He had fought at home--so the legend says--with wild boars, with foreign invaders, and with enchanters, but he never had quite so severe a contest as with this giant; but after he had cut off his opponent's head and had been healed with precious balm by the beautiful princess, he buried the giant's body in a deep grave and placed above it a great stone engraved in the Ogham alphabet--in which all the letters are given in straight lines.

After this he and Niam again mounted the white steed and galloped away over the waves. Niam was again singing, when soft music began to be heard in the distance, as if in the centre of the setting sun. They drew nearer and nearer to a shore where the very trees trembled with the multitude of birds that sang upon them; and when they reached the shore, Niam gave one note of song, and a band of youths and maidens came rushing towards them and embraced them with eagerness. Then they too sang, and as they did it, one brought to Usheen a harp of silver and bade him sing of earthly joys. He found himself chanting, as he thought, with peculiar spirit and melody, but as he told them of human joys they kept still and began to weep, till at last one of them seized the silver harp and flung it away into a pool of water, saying, "It is the saddest harp in all the world."

Then he forgot all the human joys which seemed to those happy people only as sorrows compared with their own; and he dwelt with them thenceforward in perpetual youth. For a hundred years he chased the deer and went fishing in strangely carved boats and joined in the athletic sports of the young men; for a hundred years the gentle Niam was his wife.

But one day, when Usheen was by the beach, there floated to his feet what seemed a wooden staff, and he drew it from the waves. It was the battered fragment of a warrior's lance. The blood stains of war were still on it, and as he looked at it he recalled the old days of the Feni, the wars and tumult of his youth; and how he had outlived his tribe and all had passed away. Niam came softly to him and rested against his shoulder, but it did not soothe his pain, and he heard one of the young men watching him say to another, "The human sadness has come back into his eyes." The people around stood watching him, all sharing his sorrow, and knowing that his time of happiness was over and that he would go back among men. So indeed it was; Niam and Usheen mounted the white steed again and galloped away over the sea, but she had warned him when they mounted that he must never dismount for an instant, for that if he once touched the earth, she and the steed would vanish forever, that his youth too would disappear, and that he would be left alone on earth--an old man whose whole generation had vanished.

They passed, as before, over the sea; the same visions hovered around them, youths and maidens and animals of the chase; they passed by many islands, and at last reached the shore of Erin again. As they travelled over its plains and among its hills, Oisin looked in vain for his old companions. A little people had taken their place,--small men and women, mounted on horses as small;--and these people gazed in wonder at the mighty Usheen. "We have heard," they said, "of the hero Finn, and the poets have written many tales of him and of his people, the Feni. We have read in old books that he had a son Usheen who went away with a fairy maiden; but he was never seen again, and there is no race of the Feni left." Yet refusing to believe this, and always looking round for the people whom he had known and loved of old, he thought within himself that perhaps the Feni were not to be seen because they were hunting fierce wolves by night, as they used to do in his boyhood, and that they were therefore sleeping in the daytime; but again an old man said to him, "The Feni are dead." Then he remembered that it was a hundred years, and that his very race had perished, and he turned with contempt on the little men and their little horses. Three hundred of them as he rode by were trying to lift a vast stone, but they staggered under its weight, and at last fell and lay beneath it; then leaning from his saddle Usheen lifted the stone with one hand and flung it five yards. But with the strain the saddle girth broke, and Usheen came to the ground; the white steed shook himself and neighed, then galloped away, bearing Niam with him, and Usheen lay with all his strength gone from him--a feeble old man. The Island of Youth could only be known by those who dwelt always within it, and those mortals who had once left it could dwell there no more.


(The end)
Thomas Wentworth Higginson's short story: Usheen In The Island Of Youth

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