URING THIS conversation Conn had been regarding her with the minute freedom which is right only in a king. At what precise instant he forgot his dead consort we do not know, but it is certain that at this moment his mind was no longer burdened with that dear and lovely memory. His voice was melancholy when he spoke again.
"You love my son!"
"Who could avoid loving him?" she murmured.
"When a woman speaks to a man about the love she feels for another man she is not liked. And," he continued, "when she speaks to a man who has no wife of his own about her love for another man then she is disliked."
"I would not be disliked by you," Becuma murmured.
"Nevertheless," said he regally, "I will not come between a woman and her choice."
"I did not know you lacked a wife," said Becuma, but indeed she did.
"You know it now," the king replied sternly.
"What shall I do?" she inquired, "am I to wed you or your son?"
"You must choose," Conn answered.
"If you allow me to choose it means that you do not want me very badly," said she with a smile.
"Then I will not allow you to choose," cried the king, "and it is with myself you shall marry."
He took her hand in his and kissed it.
"Lovely is this pale thin hand. Lovely is the slender foot that I see in a small bronze shoe," said the king.
After a suitable time she continued:
"I should not like your son to be at Tara when I am there, or for a year afterwards, for I do not wish to meet him until I have forgotten him and have come to know you well."
"I do not wish to banish my son," the king protested.
"It would not really be a banishment," she said. "A prince's duty could be set him, and in such an absence he would improve his knowledge both of Ireland and of men. Further," she continued with downcast eyes, "when you remember the reason that brought me here you will see that his presence would be an embarrassment to us both, and my presence would be unpleasant to him if he remembers his mother."
"Nevertheless," said Conn stubbornly, "I do not wish to banish my son; it is awkward and unnecessary."
"For a year only," she pleaded.
"It is yet," he continued thoughtfully, "a reasonable reason that you give and I will do what you ask, but by my hand and word I don't like doing it."
They set out then briskly and joyfully on the homeward journey, and in due time they reached Tara of the Kings.
It is part of the education of a prince to be a good chess player, and to continually exercise his mind in view of the judgements that he will be called upon to give and the knotty, tortuous, and perplexing matters which will obscure the issues which he must judge. Art, the son of Conn, was sitting at chess with Cromdes, his father's magician.
"Be very careful about the move you are going to make," said Cromdes.
"CAN I be careful?" Art inquired. "Is the move that you are thinking of in my power?"
"It is not," the other admitted.
"Then I need not be more careful than usual," Art replied, and he made his move.
"It is a move of banishment," said Cromdes.
"As I will not banish myself, I suppose my father will do it, but I do not know why he should."
"Your father will not banish you."
"Who then?" "Your mother."
"My mother is dead."
"You have a new one," said the magician.
"Here is news," said Art. "I think I shall not love my new mother."
"You will yet love her better than she loves you," said Cromdes, meaning thereby that they would hate each other.
While they spoke the king and Becuma entered the palace.
"I had better go to greet my father," said the young man.
"You had better wait until he sends for you," his companion advised, and they returned to their game.
In due time a messenger came from the king directing Art to leave Tara instantly, and to leave Ireland for one full year.
He left Tara that night, and for the space of a year he was not seen again in Ireland. But during that period things did not go well with the king nor with Ireland. Every year before that time three crops of corn used to be lifted off the land, but during Art's absence there was no corn in Ireland and there was no milk. The whole land went hungry.
Lean people were in every house, lean cattle in every field; the bushes did not swing out their timely berries or seasonable nuts; the bees went abroad as busily as ever, but each night they returned languidly, with empty pouches, and there was no honey in their hives when the honey season came. People began to look at each other questioningly, meaningly, and dark remarks passed between them, for they knew that a bad harvest means, somehow, a bad king, and, although this belief can be combated, it is too firmly rooted in wisdom to be dismissed.
The poets and magicians met to consider why this disaster should have befallen the country and by their arts they discovered the truth about the king's wife, and that she was Becuma of the White Skin, and they discovered also the cause of her banishment from the Many-Coloured Land that is beyond the sea, which is beyond even the grave.
They told the truth to the king, but he could not bear to be parted from that slender-handed, gold-haired, thin-lipped, blithe enchantress, and he required them to discover some means whereby he might retain his wife and his crown. There was a way and the magicians told him of it.
"If the son of a sinless couple can be found and if his blood be mixed with the soll of Tara the blight and ruin will depart from Ireland," said the magicians.
"If there is such a boy I will find him," cried the Hundred Fighter.
At the end of a year Art returned to Tara. His father delivered to him the sceptre of Ireland, and he set out on a journey to find the son of a sinless couple such as he had been told of.