The Child that Went with the
by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Eastward of the old city of Limerick, about ten Irish miles under the
range of mountains known as the Slieveelim hills, famous as having
afforded Sarsfield a shelter among their rocks and hollows, when he
crossed them in his gallant descent upon the cannon and ammunition of
King William, on its way to the beleaguering army, there runs a very
old and narrow road. It connects the Limerick road to Tipperary with
the old road from Limerick to Dublin, and runs by bog and pasture,
hill and hollow, straw-thatched village, and roofless castle, not far
from twenty miles.
Skirting the healthy mountains of which I have spoken, at one part it
becomes singularly lonely. For more than three Irish miles it
traverses a deserted country. A wide, black bog, level as a lake,
skirted with copse, spreads at the left, as you journey northward, and
the long and irregular line of mountain rises at the right, clothed in
heath, broken with lines of grey rock that resemble the bold and
irregular outlines of fortifications, and riven with many a gully,
expanding here and there into rocky and wooded glens, which open as
they approach the road.
A scanty pasturage, on which browsed a few scattered sheep or kine,
skirts this solitary road for some miles, and under shelter of a
hillock, and of two or three great ash-trees, stood, not many years
ago, the little thatched cabin of a widow named Mary Ryan.
Poor was this widow in a land of poverty. The thatch had acquired the
grey tint and sunken outlines, that show how the alternations of rain
and sun have told upon that perishable shelter.
But whatever other dangers threatened, there was one well provided
against by the care of other times. Round the cabin stood half a dozen
mountain ashes, as the rowans, inimical to witches, are there called.
On the worn planks of the door were nailed two horse-shoes, and over
the lintel and spreading along the thatch, grew, luxuriant, patches of
that ancient cure for many maladies, and prophylactic against the
machinations of the evil one, the house-leek. Descending into the
doorway, in the chiaroscuro of the interior, when your eye grew
sufficiently accustomed to that dim light, you might discover, hanging
at the head of the widow's wooden-roofed bed, her beads and a phial of
Here certainly were defences and bulwarks against the intrusion of
that unearthly and evil power, of whose vicinity this solitary family
were constantly reminded by the outline of Lisnavoura, that lonely
hillhaunt of the "Good people," as the fairies are called
euphemistically, whose strangely dome-like summit rose not half a mile
away, looking like an outwork of the long line of mountain that sweeps
It was at the fall of the leaf, and an autumnal sunset threw the
lengthening shadow of haunted Lisnavoura, close in front of the
solitary little cabin, over the undulating slopes and sides of
Slieveelim. The birds were singing among the branches in the thinning
leaves of the melancholy ash-trees that grew at the roadside in front
of the door. The widow's three younger children were playing on the
road, and their voices mingled with the evening song of the birds.
Their elder sister, Nell, was "within in the house," as their phrase
is, seeing after the boiling of the potatoes for supper.
Their mother had gone down to the bog, to carry up a hamper of turf on
her back. It is, or was at least, a charitable custom—and if not
disused, long may it continue—for the wealthier people when cutting
their turf and stacking it in the bog, to make a smaller stack for the
behoof of the poor, who were welcome to take from it so long as it
lasted, and thus the potato pot was kept boiling, and hearth warm that
would have been cold enough but for that good-natured bounty, through
Moll Ryan trudged up the steep "bohereen" whose banks were overgrown
with thorn and brambles, and stooping under her burden, re-entered her
door, where her dark-haired daughter Nell met her with a welcome, and
relieved her of her hamper.
Moll Ryan looked round with a sigh of relief, and drying her forehead,
uttered the Munster ejaculation:
"Eiah, wisha! It's tired I am with it, God bless it. And where's the
"Playin' out on the road, mother; didn't ye see them and you comin'
"No; there was no one before me on the road," she said, uneasily; "not
a soul, Nell; and why didn't ye keep an eye on them?"
"Well, they're in the haggard, playin' there, or round by the back o'
the house. Will I call them in?"
"Do so, good girl, in the name o' God. The hens is comin' home, see,
and the sun was just down over Knockdoulah, an' I comin' up."
So out ran tall, dark-haired Nell, and standing on the road, looked up
and down it; but not a sign of her two little brothers, Con and Bill,
or her little sister, Peg, could she see. She called them; but no
answer came from the little haggard, fenced with straggling bushes.
She listened, but the sound of their voices was missing. Over the
stile, and behind the house she ran—but there all was silent and
She looked down toward the bog, as far as she could see; but they did
not appear. Again she listened—but in vain. At first she had felt
angry, but now a different feeling overcame her, and she grew pale.
With an undefined boding she looked toward the heathy boss of
Lisnavoura, now darkening into the deepest purple against the flaming
sky of sunset.
Again she listened with a sinking heart, and heard nothing but the
farewell twitter and whistle of the birds in the bushes around. How
many stories had she listened to by the winter hearth, of children
stolen by the fairies, at nightfall, in lonely places! With this fear
she knew her mother was haunted.
No one in the country round gathered her little flock about her so
early as this frightened widow, and no door "in the seven parishes"
was barred so early.
Sufficiently fearful, as all young people in that part of the world
are of such dreaded and subtle agents, Nell was even more than usually
afraid of them, for her terrors were infected and redoubled by her
mother's. She was looking towards Lisnavoura in a trance of fear, and
crossed herself again and again, and whispered prayer after prayer.
She was interrupted by her mother's voice on the road calling her
loudly. She answered, and ran round to the front of the cabin, where
she found her standing.
"And where in the world's the craythurs—did ye see sight o' them
anywhere?" cried Mrs. Ryan, as the girl came over the stile.
"Arrah! mother, 'tis only what they're run down the road a bit. We'll
see them this minute coming back. It's like goats they are, climbin'
here and runnin' there; an' if I had them here, in my hand, maybe I
wouldn't give them a hiding all round."
"May the Lord forgive you, Nell! the childhers gone. They're took, and
not a soul near us, and Father Tom three miles away! And what'll I do,
or who's to help us this night? Oh, wirristhru, wirristhru! The
craythurs is gone!"
"Whisht, mother, be aisy: don't ye see them comin' up?"
And then she shouted in menacing accents, waving her arm, and
beckoning the children, who were seen approaching on the road, which
some little way off made a slight dip, which had concealed them. They
were approaching from the westward, and from the direction of the
dreaded hill of Lisnavoura.
But there were only two of the children, and one of them, the little
girl, was crying. Their mother and sister hurried forward to meet
them, more alarmed than ever.
"Where is Billy—where is he?" cried the mother, nearly breathless, so
soon as she was within hearing.
"He's gone—they took him away; but they said he'll come back again,"
answered little Con, with the dark brown hair.
"He's gone away with the grand ladies," blubbered the little girl.
"What ladies—where? Oh, Leum, asthora! My darlin', are you gone away
at last? Where is he? Who took him? What ladies are you talkin' about?
What way did he go?" she cried in distraction.
"I couldn't see where he went, mother; 'twas like as if he was going
With a wild exclamation the distracted woman ran on towards the hill
alone, clapping her hands, and crying aloud the name of her lost
Scared and horrified, Nell, not daring to follow, gazed after her, and
burst into tears; and the other children raised high their
lamentations in shrill rivalry.
Twilight was deepening. It was long past the time when they were
usually barred securely within their habitation. Nell led the younger
children into the cabin, and made them sit down by the turf fire,
while she stood in the open door, watching in great fear for the
return of her mother.
After a long while they did see their mother return. She came in and
sat down by the fire, and cried as if her heart would break.
"Will I bar the doore, mother?" asked Nell.
"Ay, do—didn't I lose enough, this night, without lavin' the doore
open, for more o' yez to go; but first take an' sprinkle a dust o' the
holy waters over ye, acuishla, and bring it here till I throw a taste
iv it over myself and the craythurs; an' I wondher, Nell, you'd forget
to do the like yourself, lettin' the craythurs out so near nightfall.
Come here and sit on my knees, asthora, come to me, mavourneen, and
hould me fast, in the name o' God, and I'll hould you fast that none
can take yez from me, and tell me all about it, and what it was—the
Lord between us and harm—an' how it happened, and who was in it."
And the door being barred, the two children, sometimes speaking
together, often interrupting one another, often interrupted by their
mother, managed to tell this strange story, which I had better relate
connectedly and in my own language.
The Widow Ryan's three children were playing, as I have said, upon the
narrow old road in front of her door. Little Bill or Leum, about five
years old, with golden hair and large blue eyes, was a very pretty
boy, with all the clear tints of healthy childhood, and that gaze of
earnest simplicity which belongs not to town children of the same age.
His little sister Peg, about a year older, and his brother Con, a
little more than a year elder than she, made up the little group.
Under the great old ash-trees, whose last leaves were falling at their
feet, in the light of an October sunset, they were playing with the
hilarity and eagerness of rustic children, clamouring together, and
their faces were turned toward the west and storied hill of
Suddenly a startling voice with a screech called to them from behind,
ordering them to get out of the way, and turning, they saw a sight,
such as they never beheld before. It was a carriage drawn by four
horses that were pawing and snorting, in impatience, as it just pulled
up. The children were almost under their feet, and scrambled to the
side of the road next their own door.
This carriage and all its appointments were old-fashioned and
gorgeous, and presented to the children, who had never seen anything
finer than a turf car, and once, an old chaise that passed that way
from Killaloe, a spectacle perfectly dazzling.
Here was antique splendour. The harness and trappings were scarlet,
and blazing with gold. The horses were huge, and snow white, with
great manes, that as they tossed and shook them in the air, seemed to
stream and float sometimes longer and sometimes shorter, like so much
smoke—their tails were long, and tied up in bows of broad scarlet and
gold ribbon. The coach itself was glowing with colours, gilded and
emblazoned. There were footmen in gay liveries, and three-cocked hats,
like the coachman's; but he had a great wig, like a judge's, and their
hair was frizzed out and powdered, and a long thick "pigtail," with a
bow to it, hung down the back of each.
All these servants were diminutive, and ludicrously out of proportion
with the enormous horses of the equipage, and had sharp, sallow
features, and small, restless fiery eyes, and faces of cunning and
malice that chilled the children. The little coachman was scowling and
showing his white fangs under his cocked hat, and his little blazing
beads of eyes were quivering with fury in their sockets as he whirled
his whip round and round over their heads, till the lash of it looked
like a streak of fire in the evening sun, and sounded like the cry of
a legion of "fillapoueeks" in the air.
"Stop the princess on the highway!" cried the coachman, in a piercing
"Stop the princess on the highway!" piped each footman in turn,
scowling over his shoulder down on the children, and grinding his keen
The children were so frightened they could only gape and turn white in
their panic. But a very sweet voice from the open window of the
carriage reassured them, and arrested the attack of the lackeys.
A beautiful and "very grand-looking" lady was smiling from it on them,
and they all felt pleased in the strange light of that smile.
"The boy with the golden hair, I think," said the lady, bending her
large and wonderfully clear eyes on little Leum.
The upper sides of the carriage were chiefly of glass, so that the
children could see another woman inside, whom they did not like so
This was a black woman, with a wonderfully long neck, hung round with
many strings of large variously-coloured beads, and on her head was a
sort of turban of silk striped with all the colours of the rainbow,
and fixed in it was a golden star.
This black woman had a face as thin almost as a death's-head, with
high cheekbones, and great goggle eyes, the whites of which, as well
as her wide range of teeth, showed in brilliant contrast with her
skin, as she looked over the beautiful lady's shoulder, and whispered
something in her ear.
"Yes; the boy with the golden hair, I think," repeated the lady.
And her voice sounded sweet as a silver bell in the children's ears,
and her smile beguiled them like the light of an enchanted lamp, as
she leaned from the window with a look of ineffable fondness on the
golden-haired boy, with the large blue eyes; insomuch that little
Billy, looking up, smiled in return with a wondering fondness, and
when she stooped down, and stretched her jewelled arms towards him, he
stretched his little hands up, and how they touched the other children
did not know; but, saying, "Come and give me a kiss, my darling," she
raised him, and he seemed to ascend in her small fingers as lightly as
a feather, and she held him in her lap and covered him with kisses.
Nothing daunted, the other children would have been only too happy to
change places with their favoured little brother. There was only one
thing that was unpleasant, and a little frightened them, and that was
the black woman, who stood and stretched forward, in the carriage as
before. She gathered a rich silk and gold handkerchief that was in her
fingers up to her lips, and seemed to thrust ever so much of it, fold
after fold, into her capacious mouth, as they thought to smother her
laughter, with which she seemed convulsed, for she was shaking and
quivering, as it seemed, with suppressed merriment; but her eyes,
which remained uncovered, looked angrier than they had ever seen eyes
But the lady was so beautiful they looked on her instead, and she
continued to caress and kiss the little boy on her knee; and smiling
at the other children she held up a large russet apple in her fingers,
and the carriage began to move slowly on, and with a nod inviting them
to take the fruit, she dropped it on the road from the window; it
rolled some way beside the wheels, they following, and then she
dropped another, and then another, and so on. And the same thing
happened to all; for just as either of the children who ran beside had
caught the rolling apple, somehow it slipt into a hole or ran into a
ditch, and looking up they saw the lady drop another from the window,
and so the chase was taken up and continued till they got, hardly
knowing how far they had gone, to the old cross-road that leads to
Owney. It seemed that there the horses' hoofs and carriage wheels
rolled up a wonderful dust, which being caught in one of those eddies
that whirl the dust up into a column, on the calmest day, enveloped
the children for a moment, and passed whirling on towards Lisnavoura,
the carriage, as they fancied, driving in the centre of it; but
suddenly it subsided, the straws and leaves floated to the ground, the
dust dissipated itself, but the white horses and the lackeys, the
gilded carriage, the lady and their little golden-haired brother were
At the same moment suddenly the upper rim of the clear setting sun
disappeared behind the hill of Knockdoula, and it was twilight. Each
child felt the transition like a shock—and the sight of the rounded
summit of Lisnavoura, now closely overhanging them, struck them with a
They screamed their brother's name after him, but their cries were
lost in the vacant air. At the same time they thought they heard a
hollow voice say, close to them, "Go home."
Looking round and seeing no one, they were scared, and hand in
hand—the little girl crying wildly, and the boy white as ashes, from
fear, they trotted homeward, at their best speed, to tell, as we have
seen, their strange story.
Molly Ryan never more saw her darling. But something of the lost
little boy was seen by his former playmates.
Sometimes when their mother was away earning a trifle at haymaking,
and Nelly washing the potatoes for their dinner, or "beatling" clothes
in the little stream that flows in the hollow close by, they saw the
pretty face of little Billy peeping in archly at the door, and smiling
silently at them, and as they ran to embrace him, with cries of
delight, he drew back, still smiling archly, and when they got out
into the open day, he was gone, and they could see no trace of him
This happened often, with slight variations in the circumstances of
the visit. Sometimes he would peep for a longer time, sometimes for a
shorter time, sometimes his little hand would come in, and, with
bended finger, beckon them to follow; but always he was smiling with
the same arch look and wary silence—and always he was gone when they
reached the door. Gradually these visits grew less and less frequent,
and in about eight months they ceased altogether, and little Billy,
irretrievably lost, took rank in their memories with the dead.
One wintry morning, nearly a year and a half after his disappearance,
their mother having set out for Limerick soon after cockcrow, to sell
some fowls at the market, the little girl, lying by the side of her
elder sister, who was fast asleep, just at the grey of the morning
heard the latch lifted softly, and saw little Billy enter and close
the door gently after him. There was light enough to see that he was
barefoot and ragged, and looked pale and famished. He went straight to
the fire, and cowered over the turf embers, and rubbed his hands
slowly, and seemed to shiver as he gathered the smouldering turf
The little girl clutched her sister in terror and whispered, "Waken,
Nelly, waken; here's Billy come back!"
Nelly slept soundly on, but the little boy, whose hands were extended
close over the coals, turned and looked toward the bed, it seemed to
her, in fear, and she saw the glare of the embers reflected on his
thin cheek as he turned toward her. He rose and went, on tiptoe,
quickly to the door, in silence, and let himself out as softly as he
had come in.
After that, the little boy was never seen any more by any one of his
"Fairy doctors," as the dealers in the preternatural, who in such
cases were called in, are termed, did all that in them lay—but in
vain. Father Tom came down, and tried what holier rites could do, but
equally without result. So little Billy was dead to mother, brother,
and sisters; but no grave received him. Others whom affection
cherished, lay in holy ground, in the old churchyard of Abington, with
headstone to mark the spot over which the survivor might kneel and say
a kind prayer for the peace of the departed soul. But there was no
landmark to show where little Billy was hidden from their loving eyes,
unless it was in the old hill of Lisnavoura, that cast its long shadow
at sunset before the cabin-door; or that, white and filmy in the
moonlight, in later years, would occupy his brother's gaze as he
returned from fair or market, and draw from him a sigh and a prayer
for the little brother he had lost so long ago, and was never to see