Old Matthias was sitting beside his door. Anyone going the road would think that it was an image of stone or of marble was in that – that, or a dead person – for he couldn’t believe that a living man could stay so calm, so quiet as that. He had his head high and an ear on him listening. It’s many a musical sound there was to listen to, for the person who’d have heed on them. Old Matthias heard the roar of the waves on the rocks, and the murmur of the steam flowing dawn and over the stones. He heard the screech of the heron-crane from the high, rocky shore, and the lowing of the cows from the pasture, and the bright laughter of the children from the green. But it wasn’t to any of these he was listening that attentively – though all of them were sweet to him – but to the clear sound of the bell for Mass that was coming to him on the wind in the morning stillness.
All the people were gathered into Mass. Old Matthias saw them going past, in ones and twos, or in little groups. The boys were running and leaping. The girls were chattering merrily. The women were conversing in low tones. The men were silent. Like this, they’d travel the road every Sunday. Like this, Old Matthias would sit on his chair watching them till they’d go out of sight. They went past him this morning as usual. The old man remained looking at them till there was an end to the noise and the commotion, till the last group cleared the top of the church hill, till there was nothing to be seen but a long, straight road stretching out, and it white, till there was none to be found in the village but an odd old person in his bed, or children tricking on the green, and himself sitting beside his door.
Old Matthias would not go to the chapel. He hadn’t heard ‘the sweet Mass’ for over three score years. He was a strong, active youth the last time he blessed himself before the people, and now he was a withered, done old man, his share of hair grey-white, furrows in his brow, his shoulders bent. He hadn’t bent his knee before God for the length of those three score years; he hadn’t put a prayer to his Creator; he hadn’t given thanks to his Saviour. A man apart, Old Matthias was.
Nobody knew why he wouldn’t go to Mass. People said that he didn’t believe there was a God in it. Other people said that he committed some terrible sin at the start of his life, and when the priest wouldn’t give him absolution in confession, that a range of anger came on him, and he swore an oath that he wouldn’t touch priest or chapel while he was living again. Other people said – but this was said only in a whisper by the fireside when the old people would be yarning by themselves after the children had gone asleep – these said that he sold his soul to a certain Great Man that he met once on the top of Cnoc-a’-daimh, and that this person wouldn’t allow him to frequent the Mass. I don’t know is it true or lying these stories are, but I do know that old Matthias wasn’t seen at God’s Mass in the memory of the oldest person in the village. Cuimin O’Niadh – an old man that got death a couple of years before this in his ninetieth year – said that he himself saw him there when he was a lump of a lad.
It wasn’t thought that Old Matthias was a bad character. He was a man as honest, as simple, as natural as you would meet in a day’s walking. There wasn’t ever heard out of his mouth but the good word. He had no delight in drink or in company, no wish for gold or for property. He was poor, but it’s often he shared with people that were poorer than he. He had pity for the infirm. He had mercy for the wretched. Other men had honour and esteem for him. The women, the children, and the animals loved him; and he had love for them and for everything that was generous and of clean heart.
Old Matthias liked women’s talk better than men’s talk. But he liked the talk of boys and girls still better than the talk of men or women. He used say that the women were more discerning than the men, and that the children were more discerning than either of them. It’s along with the young folk he would spend the best part of his idle time. He would sit with them in a corner of the house, telling them stories, or getting stories out of them. They were wonderful, his share of stories. He had the ‘Adventures of the Grey Horse’ in grandest way in the world. He was the one old body in the village who had the story of the ‘Hen-Harrier and the Wren,’ properly. Isn’t it he would put fright on the children, and he reciting ‘Fú Fá Feasóg’ (The Two-Headed Giant), and isn’t it he would take the laughs out of them discoursing on the doings of the piper in the Snail’s Castle! And the songs he had! He could coax an ailing child asleep with his:
‘Shoheen, sho, and sleep, my pet;
The fairies are out walking the glen!’
Or he could put the full of a house of children in fits of laughter with his:
‘Hi diddle-dum, the cat and his mother,
That went to Galway riding a drake!’
And isn’t it he had the funny old ranns; and the hard, difficult questions; and the fine riddles! As for games, where was the person, man, woman, or child could keep ‘Lúrabóg, Lúrabóg,’ or ‘An Bhuidhean Bhalbh’ (The Dumb Band) going with him!
In the fine time it’s on the side of the hill, or walking the bog, you’d see Old Matthias and his little playmates, he explaining to them the way of life of the ants and of the woodlice, or inventing stories about the hedgehog and the red squirrel. Another time to them boating, the old man with an oar, some little wee boy with another one, and maybe a young girl steering. It’s often the people who’d be working near the strand would hear the shouts of joy of the children coming to them from the harbour-mouth, or, it might be, Old Matthias’s voice, and he saying:
‘Oró! my curragheen O!
And óró! my little boat!’
Or something like it.
There used come fear on a share of the mothers at times, and they’d say to each other that they oughtn’t let their children spend that much time with Old Matthias, – ‘a man that frequents neither clergy nor Mass.’ Once a woman of them laid bare these thoughts to Father Sean. It’s what the priest said:
‘Don’t meddle with the poor children,’ says he. ‘They couldn’t be in better company.’
‘But they tell me he doesn’t believe in God, Father.’
‘There’s many a saint in heaven to-day that didn’t believe in God some time of his life. And, whisper here. If Old Matthias hasn’t love for God – a thing that neither you nor I know – it’s wonderful the love he has for the cleanest and most beautiful thing that God created, – the shining soul of the child. Our Saviour Himself and the most glorious saints in heaven had the same love for them. How do we know that it isn’t the children that will draw Old Matthias to the knee of our Saviour yet?’
And the story was left like that.
On this Sunday morning the old man remained listening till the bell for Mass stopped ringing. When there was an end to it he gave a sigh, as the person would that would be weary and sorrowful, and he turned to the group of boys that were sporting themselves on the plot of grass – the ‘green’ Old Matthias would call it – at the cross-roads. Old Matthias knew every curly-headed, bare-footed child of them. He liked no pastime at all better than to be sitting there watching them and listening to them. He was counting them, seeing which of his friends were in it and which of them were gone to Mass with the grown people, when he noticed among them a child he never saw before. A little, brown boy, with a white coat on him, like was on every other boy, and he without shoes or cap, as is the custom with the children of the West. The face of this boy was as bright as the sun, and it seemed to Old Matthias that there were, as it would be, rays of light coming from his head. The sun shining on his share of hair, maybe.
There was wonder on the old man at seeing this child, for he hadn’t heard that there were any strangers after coming to the village. He was on the point of going over and questioning one of the little lads about him, when he heard the stir and chatter of the people coming home from Mass. He didn’t feel the time slipping by him while his mind was on the tricks of the boys. Some of the people saluted him going past, and he saluted them. When he gave an eye on the group of boys again, the strange boy wasn’t among them.
The Sunday after that, Old Matthias was sitting beside his door, as usual. The people were gathered west to Mass. The young folk were running and throwing jumps on the green. Running and throwing jumps along with them was the strange child. Matthias looked at him for a long time, for he gave the love of his heart to him on account of the beauty of his person and the brightness of his countenance. At last he called over one of the little boys:
‘Who’s yon boy I see among you for a fortnight back, Coilin?’, says he – ‘he there with the brown head on him, – but have a care that it’s not reddish-fair he is: I don’t know is it dark or fair he is, and the way the sun is burning on him. Do you see him now – that one that’s running towards us?’
‘That’s Iosagan,’ says the little lad.
‘That’s the name he gives himself.’
‘Who are his people?’
‘I don’t know, but he says his father’s a king.’
‘Where does he live?’
‘He never told us that, but he says that it’s not far from us his house is.’
‘Does he be along with you often?’
‘Aye, when we do be spending time to ourselves like this. But he goes from us when a grown person is present. Look! he’s gone already!’
The old man looked, and there was no one in but the boys he knew. The child, the little boy called Iosagan, was missing. The same moment, the noise and bustle of the people were heard returning from Mass.
The next Sunday everything fell out exactly as it fell on the two Sundays before that. The people gathered west as usual, and the old man and the children were left by themselves in the village. The heart of Old Matthias gave a leap in his middle when he saw the Holy Child among them again.
He rose. He went over and he stood near Him. After a time, standing without a move, he stretched his two hands towards Him, and he spoke in a low voice:
The Child heard him, and He came towards him, running.
‘Come here and sit on my knee for a little while, Iosagan.’
The Child put His hand in the thin, knuckly hand of the old man, and they travelled side by side across the road. Old Matthias sat on his chair, and drew Iosagan to his breast.
‘Where do You live, Iosagan?’, says he, speaking low always.
‘Not far from this My House is. Why don’t you come on a visit to Me?’
‘I’d be afraid in a royal house. It’s told me that Your Father’s a King.’
‘He is High-King of the World. But there is no need for you to be afraid of Him. He is full of mercy and love.’
‘I fear I haven’t kept His law.’
‘Ask forgiveness of Him. I and My Mother will make intercession for you.’
‘It’s a pity I didn’t see You before this, Iosagan. Where were You from me?’
‘I was here always. I do be travelling the roads, and walking the hills, and ploughing the waves. I do be among the people when they gather into My House. I do be among the children they do leave behind them playing on the street.’
‘I was too timid – or too proud – to go into Your House, Iosagan; but I found You among the children.’
‘There isn’t any time or place that children do be amusing themselves that I am not along with them. Times they see Me; other times they do not see Me.’
‘I never saw You till lately.’
‘The grown people do be blind.’
‘And it has been granted me to see You, Iosagan?’
‘My Father gave Me leave to show Myself to you, because you loved His little children.’
The voices were heard of the people returning from Mass.
‘I must go now from you.’
‘Let me kiss the border of Your coat, Iosagan.’
‘Shall I see You again?’
With that word He was gone.
‘I will see Him this night!’, says Old Matthias, and he going into the house.
The night came wet and stormy. The great waves were heard breaking with a booming roar against the strand. The trees round the chapel were swaying and bending with the strength of the wind. (The chapel is on a little hill that falls down with a slope to the sea.) Father Sean was on the point of closing his book and saying his Rosary when he heard a noise, as it would be somebody knocking at the door. He listened for a spell. He heard the noise again. He rose from the fire, went to the door, and opened it. A little boy was standing on the door-flag – a boy the priest didn’t mind ever to have seen before. He had a white coat on him, and he without shoes or cap. The priest thought that there were rays of lights shining from his countenance, and about his head. The moon that was shining on his brown, comely head, it’s like.
‘Who have I here?’, says Father Sean.
‘Put on you as quickly as you’re able, Father, and strike east to the house of Old Matthias. He is in the mouths of death.’
The priest didn’t want the second word.
‘Sit here till I’m ready,’ says he. But when he came back, the little messenger was gone.
Father Sean struck the road, and he didn’t take long to finish the journey, though the wind was against him, and it raining heavily. There was a light in Old Matthias’s house before him. He took the latch from the door, and went in.
‘Who is this coming to me?’, says a voice from the old man’s bed.
‘I’d like to speak to you, Father. Sit here beside me.’ The voice was feeble, and the words came slowly from him.
The priest sat down, and heard Old Matthias’s story from beginning to end. Whatever secret was in the old body’s heart it was laid bare to the servant of God there in the middle of the night. When the confession was over, Old Matthias received communion, and he was anointed.
‘Who told you that I was wanting you, Father?’, says he in a weak, low voice, when everything was done. ‘I was praying God that you’d come, but I hadn’t any messenger to send for you.’
‘But, sure, you did send a messenger to me?’, says the priest, and great wonder on him.
‘You didn’t? But a little boy came, and he knocked at my door, and he said to me that you were wanting my help!’
The old man sat up straight in the bed. There was a flashing in his eyes.
‘What sort was the little boy was in it, Father?’
‘A gentle little boy, with a white coat on him.’
‘Did you take notice was there a haze of light about his head?’
‘I did, and it put great wonder on me.’
Old Matthias looked up, and there came a smile on his mouth, and he stretched out his two arms:
‘Iosagan!’, says he.
With that word, he fell back on the bed. The priest went hither to him softly, and closed his eyes.