ECFOLA PUSHED THE door of the king's sleeping chamber and entered noiselessly. Then she sat quietly in a seat gazing on the recumbent monarch, and prepared to consider how she should advance to him when he awakened, and with what information she might stay his inquiries or reproaches.
"I will reproach him," she thought. "I will call him a bad husband and astonish him, and he will forget everything but his own alarm and indignation."
But at that moment the king lifted his head from the pillow and looked kindly at her. Her heart gave a great throb, and she prepared to speak at once and in great volume before he could formulate any question. But the king spoke first, and what he said so astonished her that the explanation and reproach with which her tongue was thrilling fled from it at a stroke, and she could only sit staring and bewildered and tongue-tied.
"Well, my dear heart," said the king, "have you decided not to keep that engagement?"
"I--I-- !" Becfola stammered.
"It is truly not an hour for engagements," Dermod insisted, "for not a bird of the birds has left his tree; and," he continued maliciously, "the light is such that you could not see an engagement even if you met one."
"I," Becfola gasped. "I---!"
"A Sunday journey," he went on, "is a notorious bad journey. No good can come from it. You can get your smocks and diadems to-morrow. But at this hour a wise person leaves engagements to the bats and the staring owls and the round-eyed creatures that prowl and sniff in the dark. Come back to the warm bed, sweet woman, and set on your journey in the morning."
Such a load of apprehension was lifted from Becfola's heart that she instantly did as she had been commanded, and such a bewilderment had yet possession of her faculties that she could not think or utter a word on any subject.
Yet the thought did come into her head as she stretched in the warm gloom that Crimthann the son of Ae must be now attending her at Cluain da chaillech, and she thought of that young man as of something wonderful and very ridiculous, and the fact that he was waiting for her troubled her no more than if a sheep had been waiting for her or a roadside bush.
She fell asleep.
In the morning as they sat at breakfast four clerics were announced, and when they entered the king looked on them with stern disapproval.
"What is the meaning of this journey on Sunday?" he demanded.
A lank-jawed, thin-browed brother, with uneasy, intertwining fingers, and a deep-set, venomous eye, was the spokesman of those four.
"Indeed," he said, and the fingers of his right hand strangled and did to death the fingers of his left hand, "indeed, we have transgressed by order."
"We have been sent to you hurriedly by our master, Molasius of Devenish."
"A pious, a saintly man," the king interrupted, "and one who does not countenance transgressions of the Sunday."
"We were ordered to tell you as follows," said the grim cleric, and he buried the fingers of his right hand in his left fist, so that one could not hope to see them resurrected again. "It was the duty of one of the Brothers of Devenish," he continued, "to turn out the cattle this morning before the dawn of day, and that Brother, while in his duty, saw eight comely young men who fought together."
"On the morning of Sunday," Dermod exploded.
The cleric nodded with savage emphasis.
"On the morning of this self-same and instant sacred day."
"Tell on," said the king wrathfully.
But terror gripped with sudden fingers at Becfola's heart.
"Do not tell horrid stories on the Sunday," she pleaded. "No good can come to any one from such a tale."
"Nay, this must be told, sweet lady," said the king. But the cleric stared at her glumly, forbiddingly, and resumed his story at a gesture.
"Of these eight men, seven were killed."
"They are in hell," the king said gloomily.
"In hell they are," the cleric replied with enthusiasm.
"And the one that was not killed?"
"He is alive," that cleric responded.
"He would be," the monarch assented. "Tell your tale."
"Molasius had those seven miscreants buried, and he took from their unhallowed necks and from their lewd arms and from their unblessed weapons the load of two men in gold and silver treasure."
"Two men's load!" said Dermod thoughtfully.
"That much," said the lean cleric. "No more, no less. And he has sent us to find out what part of that hellish treasure belongs to the Brothers of Devenish and how much is the property of the king."
Becfola again broke in, speaking graciously, regally, hastily: "Let those Brothers have the entire of the treasure, for it is Sunday treasure, and as such it will bring no luck to any one."
The cleric again looked at her coldly, with a harsh-lidded, small-set, grey-eyed glare, and waited for the king's reply.
Dermod pondered, shaking his head as to an argument on his left side, and then nodding it again as to an argument on his right.
"It shall be done as this sweet queen advises. Let a reliquary be formed with cunning workmanship of that gold and silver, dated with my date and signed with my name, to be in memory of my grandmother who gave birth to a lamb, to a salmon, and then to my father, the Ard-Ri'. And, as to the treasure that remains over, a pastoral staff may be beaten from it in honour of Molasius, the pious man."
"The story is not ended," said that glum, spike-chinned cleric.
The king moved with jovial impatience.
"If you continue it," he said, "it will surely come to an end some time. A stone on a stone makes a house, dear heart, and a word on a word tells a tale."
The cleric wrapped himself into himself, and became lean and menacing. He whispered: "Besides the young man, named Flann, who was not slain, there was another person present at the scene and the combat and the transgression of Sunday."
"Who was that person?" said the alarmed monarch.
The cleric spiked forward his chin, and then butted forward his brow.
"It was the wife of the king," he shouted. "It was the woman called Becfola. It was that woman," he roared, and he extended a lean, inflexible, unending first finger at the queen.
"Dog!" the king stammered, starting up.
"If that be in truth a woman," the cleric screamed.
"What do you mean?" the king demanded in wrath and terror.
"Either she is a woman of this world to he punished, or she is a woman of the Shi' to be banished, but this holy morning she was in the Shi', and her arms were about the neck of Flann."
The king sank back in his chair stupefied, gazing from one to the other, and then turned an unseeing, fear-dimmed eye towards Becfola.
"Is this true, my pulse?" he murmured.
"It is true," Becfola replied, and she became suddenly to the king's eye a whiteness and a stare. He pointed to the door.
"Go to your engagement," he stammered. "Go to that Flann."
"He is waiting for me," said Becfola with proud shame, "and the thought that he should wait wrings my heart."
She went out from the palace then. She went away from Tara: and in all Ireland and in the world of living men she was not seen again, and she was never heard of again.