When one reads his mother’s compelling prose, it is easy to see in it the genesis of Oscar Wilde’s polished storytelling technique. The following is from Lady Wilde’s fascinating book, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland (Dublin: Ticknor, 1887).
The fairies take great delight in horsemanship, and are splendid riders. Many fine young men are enticed to ride with them, when they dash along with the fairies like the wind, Finvarra himself leading, on his great black horse with the red nostrils, that look like flames of fire. And ever afler the young men are the most fearless riders in the country, so the people know at once that they have hunted with the fairies. And after the hunt some favourite of the party is taken to a magnificent supper in the fairy palace, and when he has drank of the bright red wine they lull him to sleep with soft music. But never again can he find the fairy palace, and he looks in vain for the handsome horseman on his fine black steed, with all the gay young huntsmen in their green velvet dresses, who rushed over the field with him, like a flash of the storm wind. They have passed away for ever from his vision, like a dream of the night.
Once on a time a gentleman, also one of the Kirwans of Galway, was riding by the fairy hill — ^where all the fairies of the West hold their councils and meetings, under the rule of Finvarra the king— when a strange horseman, mounted on a fiery black steed, suddenly appeared. But as the stranger bid him the time of day with distinguished grace, Mr. Kirwan returned his greeting courteously, and they rode on together side by side, discoursing pleasantly — for the stranger seemed to know every one and everything, though Mr. Kirwan could not remember ever having seen him before.
” Now,” said the black horseman, ” I know that you are to be at the races to-morrow, so just let me give you a hint : if you wish to be certain of winning, allow me to send you my man to ride your horse. He never failed in a race yet, and he shall be with you early, before the start”
With that, at a turn of the road, the stranger disappeared; for he was no other than Finvarra himself, who had a friendly liking for the tribe of the Kirwans, because all the men were generous who came of the blood, and all the women handsome.
Next morning, as Mr. Kirwan was setting out for the race, his groom told him that a young jockey was waiting to see him. He was the strangest looking little imp Mr. Kirwan thought, he had ever set eyes on, but he felt compelled to give him all the rights and power that was necessary for the race, and the young imp was off in a moment, like a flash of lightning.
Mr. Kirwan knew no more — he seemed like one in a dream — till the silver cup was handed to him as winner of the race, and congratulations poured down on him, and every one asked eagerly where he got the wonderful jockey who seemed to make the horse fly like the spirit of the wind itself. But the jockey by this time had disappeared. However, the stranger on the black horse was there, and he constrained Mr. Kirwan to come with him to dinner ; and they rode on pleasantly, as before, till they reached a grand, beautiful house, with a crowd of gorgeous servants waiting on the steps to receive the lord and master and his guest
One of them led Mr. Kirwan to his room to dress for dinner, and there he found a costly suit of violet velvet ready, in which the valet arrayed him. Then he entered the dining-hall. It was all lit up splendidly, and there were garlands of flowers twining round crystal columns, and golden cups set with jewels for the wine, and golden dishes.
The host seemed an accomplished man of the world,, and did the honours with perfect grace. Conversation flowed freely, while soft music was heard at intervals from invisible players, and Mr. Kirwan could not resist the charm and beauty of the scene, nor the bright red wine that his host poured out for him into the jewelled cups.
Then, when the banquet was over, a great crowd of ladies and gentlemen came in and danced to sweet low music, and they circled round the guest and tried to draw him into the dance. But when he looked at them it seemed to him that they were all the dead he had once known; for his own brother was there, that had been drowned, in the lake a year before ; and a man who had been killed by a fall when hunting ; and others whose faces he knew well. And they were all pale as death, but their eyes burned like coals of fire.
And as he looked and wondered, a lovely lady came over to him wearing a necklace of pearls. And she clasped his wrist with her little hand, and tried to draw him into the circle.
“Dance with me,” she whispered, “dance with me again. Look at me, for you once loved me.”
And when he looked at her he knew that she was dead, and the clasp of her hand was like a ring of fire round his wrist; and he drew back in terror, for he saw that she was the beautiful girl he had loved in his youth, and to whom he had given a necklace of pearls, but who died before he could make her his bride.
Then his heart sank with fear and dread, and he said to his host —
” Take me from this place. I know the dancers ; they are dead. Why have you brought them up from their graves ? ”
But the host only laughed and said, “You must take more wine to keep up your courage.” And he poured him out a goblet of wine redder than rubies. And when he drank it, all the pageant and the music and the crowd faded away from before his eyes, and he fell into a profound sleep, and knew no more till he found himself at home, laid on his bed. And the servant told him that a strange horseman had accompanied him to the door late in the night, who had charged them to lay the master gently in his bed and by no means to awake him till noon next day, for he was weary after the race ; and he bade them take the hunter to the stables and tend him carefully, for the animal was covered with foam, and all trembling.
At noon Mr. Kirwan awoke, and rose up as well as ever ; but of all the fairy revels nothing remained to him but the mark round his wrist of the clasp of a woman’s hand, that seemed burned into his flesh.
So he knew the night’s adventure was no mere dream of the fancy, and the mark of the dead hand remained with him to his last hour, and the form of the young girl with her necklace of pearls often came before him in a vision of the night ; but he never again visited the fairy palace, and never saw the dark horseman any more. As to the silver cup, he flung it into the lake, for he thought it had come to him by devil’s magic and would bring no good luck to him or to his race. So it sank beneath the waves, and the silver cup was seen no more.