THE SOUL CAGES
JACK DOGHERTY lived on the coast of the county Clare. Jack was a fisherman, as his father and his grandfather before him had been. Like them, too, he lived all alone (but for the wife), and just in the same spot, too. People used to wonder why the Dogherty family were so fond of that wild situation, so far away from all human kind, and in the midst of huge scattered rocks, with nothing but the wide ocean to look upon. But they had their own good reasons for it.
The place was just, in short, the only spot on that part of the coast where anybody could well live; there was a neat little creek, where a boat might lie as snug as a puffin in her nest, and out from this creek a ledge of sunken rocks ran into the sea. Now, when the Atlantic, according to custom, was raging with a storm, and a good westerly wind was blowing strong on the coast, many's the richly-laden ship that went to pieces on these rocks; and then the fine bales of cotton and tobacco, and such like things; and the pipes of wine, and the puncheons of rum, and the casks of brandy, and the kegs of Hollands that used to come ashore. Why, bless you! Dunbeg Bay was just like a little estate to the Doghertys.
Not but that they were kind and humane to a distressed sailor, if ever one had the good luck to get to land; and many a time, indeed, did Jack put out in his little corragh, that would breast the billows like any gannet, to lend a hand towards bringing off the crew from a wreck. Bat when the ship was gone to pieces, and the crew were all lost, who would blame Jack for picking up all he could find? "And who's the worse of it?" said he. "For as to the king, God bless him! everybody knows he 'a rich enough already, without gettin' what 'a floatin' in the say."
Jack, though such a hermit, was a good-natured, jolly fellow. No other, sure, could ever have coaxed Biddy Mahony to quit her father's snug and warm house in the middle of the town of Ennis, and to go so many miles off to live among the rocks, with the seals and sea-gulls for her next door neighbours. But Biddy knew what's what, and she knew that Jack was the man for a woman who wished to be comfortable and happy; for, to say nothing of the fish, Jack had the supplying of half the gentlemen's houses of the country with the Godsends that came into the bay. And she was right in her choice, for no woman ate, drank, or slept better, or made a prouder appearance at Chapel on Sundays than Mrs. Dogherty.
Many a strange sight, it may well be supposed, did Jack see, and many a strange sound did he hear, but nothing daunted him. So far was he from being afraid of Merrows, or such like beings, that the very first wish of his heart was fairly to meet with one. Jack had heard that they were mighty like Christians, and that luck had always come out of an acquaintance with them. Never, therefore, did he dimly discern the Merrows moving along the face of the waters in their robes of mist, but he made direct for them; and many a scolding did Biddy, in her own quiet way, bestow upon Jack for spending his whole day out at sea, and bringing home no fish. Little did poor Biddy know the fish Jack was after.
It was rather annoying to Jack that, though living in a place where the Merrows were as plenty as lobsters, he never could get a right view of one. What vexed him more was, that both his father and grandfather had often and often seen them; and he even remembered hearing, when a child, how his grandfather, who was the first of the family that had settled down at the Creek, had been so intimate with a Merrow, that, only for fear of vexing the priest, he would have had him stand for one of his children. This, however, Jack did not well know how to believe.
Fortune at length began to think that it was only right that Jack should know as much as his father and grandfather knew. Accordingly, one day, when he had strolled a little farther than usual along the coast to the northward, just as he was turning a point, he saw something, like to nothing he had ever seen before, perched upon a rock at a little distance out to sea: it looked green in the body, as well as he could discern at that distance, and he would have sworn, only the thing was impossible, that it had a cocked hat in his hand. Jack stood, for a good half hour, straining his eyes and wondering at it, and all the time the thing did not stir hand or foot. At last Jack's patience was quite worn out, and he gave a loud whistle and a hail, when the Merrow (for such it was) started up, put the cocked hat on its head, and dived down, head foremost, from the rock.
Jack's curiosity was now excited, and he constantly directed his steps toward the point; still he could never get a glimpse of the sea-gentleman with the cocked hat; and with thinking and thinking about the matter, he began at last to fancy he had been only dreaming. One very rough day, however, when the sea was running mountains high, Jack determined to give a look at the Merrow's rock, (for he had always chosen a fine day before,) and then he saw the strange thing cutting capers upon the top of the rock, and then diving down, and then coming up, and then diving down again. Jack had now only to choose his time, (that is, a good blowing day,) and he might see the man of the sea as often as he pleased. All this, however, did not satisfy him,--"much will have more;"--he wished now to get acquainted with the Merrow, and even in this he succeeded. One tremendous blustery day, before he got to the point whence he had a- view of the Merrow's rock, the storm came on so furiously that Jack was obliged to take shelter in one of the caves which are so numerous along the coast, and there, to his astonishment, he saw, sitting before him, a thing with green hair, long green teeth, a red nose, and pig's eyes. It had a fish's tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms like fins. It wore no clothes, but had the cocked hat under its arm, and seemed engaged thinking very seriously about something. Jack, with all his courage, was a little daunted; but now or never, thought he; so up he went boldly to the cogitating fish-man, took off his hat, and made his best bow.
"Your sarvint, sir," said Jack.--"Your servant, kindly, Jack Dogherty," answered the Merrow.--"To be shure, thin, how well your honour knows my name," said Jack.--"Is it I not know your name, Jack Dogherty? Why, man, I knew your grandfather long before he was married to Judy Began, your grandmother. Ah, Jack, Jack, I was fond of that grandfather of yours; he was a mighty worthy man in his time. I never met his match above or below, before or since, for sucking in a shellful of brandy. I hope, my boy," said the old fellow, "I hope you 're his own grandson."--"Never fear me for that," said Jack; "if my mother only reared me on brandy, 'tis myself that 'ud be a suckin infant to this hour."--"Well, I like to hear you talk so manly; you and I must be better acquainted, if it were only for your grandfather's sake. But, Jack, that father of yours was not the thing; he had no head at all, not he."--"I'm shure," said Jack, "sense your honour lives down undher the wather, you must be obleeged to dhrink a power to keep any hate in you, at all at all, in such a cruel, damp, cowld place. Well, I often hard of Christhens dhrinkin' like fishes;--and might I be so bould as to ax where you get the sperits?"--"Where do you get them yourself Jack?" said the Merrow, with a knowing look.--"Hubbubboo," cries Jack, "now I see how it is; but I suppose, sir, your honour has got a fine dhry cellar below to keep them in."--"Let me alone for that," said the Merrow, with another knowing look.--"I'm shure," continued Jack, "it must be mighty well worth the luking at."--"You may say that, Jack, with your own pretty mouth," said the Merrow; "and if you meet me here next Monday, just at this time of the day, we will have a little more talk with one another about the matter."
Jack and the Merrow parted the beat friends in the world; and on Monday they met, and Jack was not a little surprised to see that the Merrow had two cocked hats with him, one under each arm. "Might I make so bould as to ask you, sir," said Jack, "why yer honour brought the two hats wid you to-day? You wouldn't, shure, be goin' to giv' me one o' them, to keep for the curosity of the thing?"--"No, no, Jack," said he, "I don't get my hats so easily, to part with them that way; but I want you to come down and eat a bit of dinner with me, and I brought you the hat to dive with."--"The Lord bless and presarve us cried Jack, in amazement, "would you want me to go down to the bottom of the salt say ocean? Shure I'd be smoothered and choked up wid the wather, to say nothin' of bein' dhrownded! And what would poor Biddy do for me, and what would she say?"--"And what matter what she says, you pinkeen you? Who cares for Biddy's squalling? It 'a long before your grandfather would have talked in that way. Many's the time he stuck that same hat on his head, and dived down boldly after me, and many's the snug bit of dinner, and good shellful of brandy, he and I had together, below under the water."--"Is it really, sir, and no joke?" said Jack; "why, thin, sorra' be from me for ivir and a day afther, if I'll be a bit a worse man nor my grandfather was! So here goes; but play me fair now. Here 's nick or nothin'!" cried Jack.--"That 's your grandfather all over," said the old fellow. "So come along, my boy, and do as I do."
They both left the cave, walked into the sea, and then swam a piece until they got to the rock. The Merrow climbed to the top of it, and Jack followed him, On the far side it was as straight as the wall of a house, and the sea looked so deep that Jack was almost cowed.
"Now, do you see, Jack," said the Merrow, "just put this hat on your head, and mind to keep your eyes wide open. Take hold of my tail, and follow after me, and you'II see what you'll see." In he dashed, and in dashed Jack after him boldly. They went and they went, and Jack thought they'd never stop going. Many a time did he wish himself sitting at home by the fireside with Biddy: yet, where was the use of wishing now, when he was so many miles as he thought below the waves of the Atlantic? Still he held hard by the Merrow's tail, slippery as it was. And, at last, to Jack's great surprise, they got out of the water, and he actually found himself on dry land at the bottom of the sea. They landed just in front of a nice little house that was slated very neatly with oyster-shells; and the Merrow, turning about to Jack, welcomed him down. Jack could hardly speak, what with wonder, and what with being out of breath with travelling so fast through the water. He looked about him, and could see no living things, barring crabs and lobsters, of which there were plenty walking leisurely about on the sand. Overhead was the sea like a sky, and the fishes like birds swimming about in it.
"Why don't you speak, man?" said the Merrow: "I dare say you had no notion that I had such a snug little concern as this? Are you smothered, or choked, or drowned, or are you fretting after Biddy, eh?" "Oh! not mysilf indeed," said Jack, showing his teeth with a good-humoured grin, "but who in the world 'ud ivir ha' thought uv seem' sich a thing?" "Well, come along my lad, and let's see what they've got for us to eat?"
Jack was really hungry, and it gave him no small pleasure to perceive a fine column of smoke rising from the chimney, announcing what was going on within. Into the house he followed the Merrow, and there he saw a good kitchen, right well provided with everything. There was a noble dresser, and plenty of pots and pans, with two young Merrows cooking. His host then led him into the room, which was furnished shabbily enough. Not a table or a chair was there in it; nothing but planks and logs of wood to sit on, and eat off. There was, however, a good fire blazing on the hearth--a comfortable sight to Jack. "Come, now, and I 'II show you where I keep--you know what," said the Merrow, with a sly look; and opening a little door, he led Jack into a fine long cellar, well filled with pipes, and kegs, and hogsheads, and barrels. "What do you say to that, Jack Dogherty?--Eh!--May-be a body can't live snug down under the water!" "The divil the doubt of that," said Jack, "anyhow."
They went back to the room, and found dinner laid. There was no table-cloth, to be sure--but what matter? It was not always Jack had one at home. The dinner would have been no discredit to the first house in the county on a fast-day. The choicest of fish, and no wonder, was there. Turbots, and soles, and lobsters, and oysters, and twenty other--kinds, were on the planks at once, and plenty of foreign spirits. The wines, the old fellow said, were too cold for his stomach. Jack ate and drank till he could eat no more: then, taking up a shell of brandy, "Here's to your honour's good health, sir," said he, "though beggin' your pardon, its mighty odd, that as long as we're acquainted, I don't know, your name yit." "That 's true, Jack," replied he; "I never thought of it before, but better late than never. My name is Coomara." "Coomara! And a mighty dacint sort of a name it is, too," cried Jack, taking another shellful: "here 's, then, to your good health, Coomara, and may you live these fifty years." "Fifty years!" repeated Coomara; "I 'm obliged to you, indeed; if you had said five hundred, it would have been something worth wishing." "By the laws, sir," said Jack, "yez live to a powerful great age here undlier the wather! Ye knew my grandfather, and he 'a dead and gone betther nor sixty years. I 'm shure it must be a mighty healthy place to live in." "No doubt of it; but come, Jack, keep the liquor stirring."
Shell after shell did they empty, and to Jack's exceeding surprise, he found the drink never got into his head, owing, I suppose, to the sea being over them, which kept their noddles cool. Old Coomara got exceedingly comfortable, and sang several songs; but Jack, if his life had depended on it, never could remember any of them. At length said he to Jack, "Now, my dear boy, if you follow me, I 'll show you my curiosities!" He opened a little door, and led Jack into a large room, where Jack saw a great many odds and ends that Coomara had picked up at one time or another. What chiefly took his attention, however, were things like lobster-pots, ranged on the ground along the wall.
"Well, Jack, how do you like my curiosities?" said old Coo. "Upon my sowkins, sir," said Jack, "they 're mighty well worth the lukin' at; but might a body make so bould as to ax what thim things like lobster-pots are?" "Oh, the soul-cages, is it?" "The what, sir?" "These things here that I keep the souls in." "Arrah! what sowls, sir? " said Jack in amazement: "shure the fish ha' got no sowls in them?" "Oh, no," replied Coo, quite coolly, "that they haven't; but these are the souls of drowned sailors." "The Lord presarve us from all harm!" muttered Jack," how in the world did you conthrive to get thim?" "Easily enough. I've only when I see a good storm coming on, to set a couple of dozen of these, and then, when the sailors are drowned, and the souls get out of them under the water, the poor things are almost perished to death, not being used to the cold; so they make into my pots for shelter, and then I have them snug, and fetch them home, and keep them here dry and warm; and is it not well for them, poor souls, to get into such good quarters?"
Jack was so thunderstruck he did not know what to say, so he said nothing. They went back into the dining-room, and had some more brandy, which was excellent, and then, as Jack knew that it must be getting late, and as Biddy might be uneasy, he stood up, and said he thought it was time for him to be on the road.
"Just as you like, Jack," said Coo, "but take a doch an durrus before you go; you've a cold journey before you." Jack knew better manners than to refuse the parting glass. "I wondher" said he, "will I ivir be able to make out my way home." "What should all you," said Coo, "when I show you the way?" Out they went before the house, and Coomara took one of the cocked hats, and put it on Jack's head the wrong way, and then lifted him up on his shoulder that he might launch him up into the water. "Now," says he, giving him a heave, "you 'll come up just in the same spot yon came down in; and, Jack, mind and throw me back the hat." He canted Jack off his shoulder, and up he shot like a bubble--whirr, whirr, whiz--away he went up through the water, till he came to the very rock he had jumped off where he found a landing-place, and then in he threw the hat, which sunk like a stone.
The sun was just going down in the beautiful sky of a calm summer's evening. The evening star was seen brightly twinkling in the cloudless heaven, and the waves of the Atlantic flashed in a golden flood of light. So Jack, perceiving it was getting late, set off home; but when he got there, not a word did he say to Biddy of where he had spent his day.
The state of the poor souls cooped up in the lobster-pots, gave Jack a great deal of trouble, and how to release them cost him a great deal of thought. He at first had a mind to speak to the priest about the matter; but what could the priest do, and what did Coo care for the priest? Besides, Coo was a good sort of an old fellow, and did not think he was doing any harm. Jack had a regard for him too, and it also might not be much to his own credit if it were known that he used to go dine with the Merrows under the sea. On the whole, he thought his best plan would be to ask Coo to dinner, and to make him drunk, if he was able, and then to take the hat and go down and turn up the pots. It was first of all necessary, however, to get Biddy out of the way; for Jack was prudent enough, as she was a woman, to wish to keep the thing secret from her.
Accordingly, Jack grew mighty pious all of a sudden, and said to Biddy, that he thought it would be for the good of both their souls if she was to go and take her rounds at Saint John's Well, near Ennis. Biddy thought so too, and accordingly off she set one fine morning at day dawn, giving Jack a strict charge to have an eye to the place. The coast being clear, away then went Jack to the rock to give the appointed signal to Coomara, which was, throwing a big stone into the water; Jack threw, and up sprang Coo. "Good morrow, Jack," said he; "what do you want with me?" "Jist nothin' at all to spake about, sir," replied Jack; "only to come and take pot-luck wid me, now that Biddy's out of the way; if I might make so free as to ax you, an' shure it 's myself that's afther doin' so." "It's quite agreeable, Jack, I assure you; what 's your hour?" "Any time that 's most convanient to yoursilf, sir: say one o'clock, that you may go home, if you wish it, wid the daylight." "I'll be with you," said Coo, "never fear me."
Jack went home and dressed a noble fish dinner, and got out plenty of his best foreign spirits, enough for that matter to make twenty men drunk. Just to the minute came Coo, with his cocked hat under his arm. Dinner was ready; they sat down, and ate and drank manfully. Jack thinking of the poor souls below in the pots, plied old Coo well with brandy, and encouraged him to sing, hoping to put him under the table, but poor Jack forgot that he had not the sea over his own head now to keep it cool. The brandy got into it and did his business for him, and Coo reeled off home, leaving his entertainer as dumb as a haddock on a Good Friday.
Jack never woke till the next morning, and then he was in a sad way. "Tis no use at all for me thinkin' to make that ould Rapperee dhrunk," said Jack; "an' how in this world can I help the poor sowis out o' the lobster pots." After ruminatin nearly the whole day, a thought struck him. "I have it," said he, slapping his thigh; "I'll be bail Coo nivir saw a dhrop o' raal potyeen as ould as he is, an' that's the thing to settle him! Och! thin isn't it well that Biddy won't be home these two days yit; I can have another twist at him." Jack asked Coo again, and Coo laughed at him for having no better head; telling him, he 'd never come up to his grandfather. "Well, but thry me agin," said Jack, "and I'll be bail to dhrink you dhrunk and sober and dhrunk agin."--"Any thing in my power," said Coo, "to oblige you."
All this dinner, Jack took care to have his own liquor watered, and to give the strongest brandy he had to Coo. At last, says he, "Pray, sir, did you ivir dhrink any potyeen? any raal mountain-jew?"--"No," says Coo; what 's that, and where does it come from?"--"Oh! that 's a sacret," said Jack, "but it 'a the right stuff; nivir believe me agin if it isn't fifty times better nor brandy or rum either. Biddy's brother jist sint me a present of a little dhrop, in exchange for some brandy and as you're an ould frind o' the family, I kep it to thrate you wid."--"Well, let 'a see what sort of thing it is," said Coo.
The potyeen was the right sort, it was first-rate, and had the real smack on it. Coo was delighted with it; he drank and he sang, and he laughed and he danced, till he fell on the floor fast asleep. Then Jack, who had taken good care to keep himself sober, snapt up the cocked hat, ran off to the rock, leaped in, and soon arrived at Coo's habitation.
All was as still as a churchyard at midnight--not a Merrow young or old, was there. In he went and turned up the pots, but nothing did he see, only he heard, he thought, a sort of a little whistle or chirp as he raised each of them. At this he was surprised, till he recollected what the priest had often said. that nobody living could see the soul, no more than they could see the wind or the air. Having now done all he could do for them he set the pots as they were before, and sent a blessing after the poor souls to speed them on their journey wherever they were going. He now began to think of returning; he put on the hat (as was right,) the wrong way; but 'when he got out, he found the water so high over his head that he had no hopes of ever getting up into it now that he had not old Coomara to give him a lift. He walked about looking for a ladder, but not one could he find, and not a rock was there in sight. At last he saw a spot where the sea hung rather lower than anywhere else, so he resolved to try there. Just as he came to it, a big cod happened to put down his tail. Jack made a jump and caught hold of it, and the cod, all in amazement, gave a bounce and pulled Jack up. The minute the hat touched the water, pop away Jack was whisked; and up he shot like a cork, dragging the poor cod, that he forgot to let go, up with him tail foremost. He got to the rock in no time, and without a moment's delay hurried home rejoicing in the good deed he had done. But, meanwhile, there was fine work at home; for our friend Jack had hardly left the house on his soul-freeing expedition, when back came Biddy from her soul-saving one to the well. When she entered the house and saw the things lying thrie-na heelah on the table before her--" Here 's a purty job," said she, "that blackguard of mine--what ill luck I had ivir to marry him--he's picked up some vagabone or other, while I was prayin' for the good of his sowl; and they've bin dhrinkin' up all the potyeen that my own brother gev' him, and all the sperits, to be shure, that he was to have sould to his honour." Then hearing an outlandish kind of grunt, she looked down and saw Coomara lying under the table. "The blessed Vargin help an' save me," shouted she, "if he hasn't made a rael baste of himself. Well, well, well to be shure, I often hard till of a man makin' a baste of himself wid dhrink, but I niver saw it afore! Oh hone, oh hone,--.Jack, honey, what 'ill I do wid you, or what 'ill I do widout you? How can any dacint woman ivir think of livin' wid a baste?"
With such like lamentations, Biddy rushed out of the house and was going, she knew not where, when she heard the well known voice of Jack, singing a merry tune. Glad enough was Biddy to find him safe and sound, and not turned into a thing that was like neither fish nor flesh. Jack was obliged to tell her all; and Biddy, though she had half a mind to be angry with him for not telling her before, owned that he had done a great service to the poor souls. Back they both went most lovingly to the house, and Jack wakened up Coomara; and perceiving the old fellow to be rather dull, he bid him not be cast down, for 'twas many a good man's case; said it all came of his not being used to the potyeen, and recommended him, by way of cure, to swallow a hair of the dog that bit him. Coo, however, seemed to think he had had quite enough: he got up, quite out of sorts, and without having the good manners to say one word in the way of civility, he sneaked off to cool himself by a jaunt through the salt water.
Coomara never missed the souls. He and Jack continued the best friends in the world; and no one, perhaps, ever equalled Jack at freeing souls from purgatory; for he contrived fifty excuses for getting into the house below the sea, unknown to the old fellow; and then turned up the pots, and let out the souls. It vexed him, to be sure, that he could never see them; but as he knew the thing to be impossible, he was obliged to be satisfied. Their intercourse continued for several years. However, one morning, on Jack's throwing in a stone, as usual, he got no answer. He flung another, and another; still there was no reply. He went away, and returned the next morning; but it was to no purpose. As he was without the hat, he could not go down to see what had become of old Coo; but his belief was, that the old man, or the old fish, or whatever he was, had either died, or had removed away from that part of the country.*
*We must here make an honest confession. This story had no foundation but a German legend. [see Nixies--Germany] All that is not to be found there is our own pure invention. Yet we afterwards found that it was well-known on the coast of Cork and Wicklow. "But," said one of our informants, "It was things like flower-pots he kept them in." So faithful is popular tradition is these matters! In this and the following tale there are some traits by another hand which we are now unable to discriminate.