IN all Celtic literature there is recognisable a certain spirit which seems to be innate in the very character of the people, a spirit of mysticism and acknowledgment of the supernatural. It carries with it a love of Nature, a delight in beauty, colour and harmony, which is common to all the Celtic races. But with these characteristics we find in Ireland a spiritual beauty, a passion of self-sacrifice, unknown in Wales or Brittany. Hence the early Irish heroes are frequently found renouncing advantages, worldly honour, and life itself, at the bidding of some imperative moral impulse. They are the knights-errant of early European chivalry, which was a much deeper and more real inspiration than the carefully cultivated artificial chivalry of centuries later. Cuchulain, Diarmuit, Naesi all pay with their lives for their obedience to the dictates of honour and conscience. And in women, for whom in those early days sacrifice of self was the only way of heroism, the surrender even of eternal bliss was only the sublimation of honour and chivalry; and this was the heroism of the Countess Cathleen.
The legend is old, so old that its root has been lost and we know not who first imagined it; but the idea, the central incident, doubtless goes back to Druid times, when a woman might well have offered herself up to the cruel gods to avert their wrath and stay the plagues which fell upon her people. Under a like impulse Curtius sprang into the gulf in the Forum, and Decius devoted himself to death to win the safety of
the Roman army. In each case the powers, evil or beneficent, were supposed to be appeased by the offering of a human life. When Christianity found this legend of sacrifice popular among the heathen nations, it was comparatively easy to adopt it and give it a yet wider scope, by making the sacrifice spiritual rather than physical, and by finally rewarding the hero with heavenly joys. It is to be noted, too, that even at this early period there is a certain glorification of chicanery: the fiend fulfils his side of the contract, but God Himself breaks the other side. This becomes a regular feature in all tales that relate dealings with the Evil One: all Devil's Bridges, Devil's Dykes, and the Faust legends show that Satan may be trusted to keep his word, while the saints invariably kept the letter and broke the spirit. To so primitive a tale as that of "The Countess Cathleen" the pettifogging quibbles of later saints are utterly unknown: God saves her soul because it is His will to reward such abnegation of self, and even the Evil One dare not question the Divine Will.
Once, long ago, as the Chronicles tell us, Ireland was known throughout Europe as "The Isle of Saints," for St. Patrick had not long before preached the Gospel, the message of good tidings, to the warring inhabit- ants, to tribes of uncivilised Celts, and to marauding Danes and Vikings. He had driven out the serpent-worshippers, and consecrated the Black Stone of Tara to the worship of the True God; he had convinced the High King of the truth and reasonableness of the doctrine of the Trinity by the illustration of the shamrock leaf, and had overthrown the great idols and purified the land. Therefore the fair shores and fertile vales or Erin, the clustered islets, dropped like jewels in the
azure seas, the mist-covered, heather-clad hill-sides, even the barren mountain-tops and the patches of firm ground scattered in the solitudes of fathomless bogs, were homes of pious Culdee or lonely hermit. There was still strife in Ireland, for king fought with king, and heathen marauders still vexed the land; but many war-like Irish clans or "septs" turned their ardour for fight to religious conflicts, and often every man of a tribe became a monk, so that great abbeys and tribal monasteries and schools were built on the hills where, in former days, stood the chieftain's stronghold (rath or dun, as Irish legends name it), with its earth mounds and wooden palisades. Holy psalms and chants replaced the boastful songs of the old bards, whilst warriors, accustomed to regard fighting and hunting as the only occupations worthy of a freeborn man, now peacefully illuminated manuscripts or wrought at useful handicrafts. Yet still in secret they dreaded and tried to appease the wrath of the Dagda, Brigit of the Holy Fire, Ængus the Ever-Young, and the awful Washers of the Ford, the Choosers of the Slain; and to this dread was now joined the new fear of the cruel demons who obeyed Satan, the Prince of Evil.
At this time there dwelt in Ireland the Countess Cathleen, young, good, and beautiful. Her eyes were as deep, as changeful, and as pure as the ocean that washed Erin's shores; her yellow hair, braided in two long tresses, was as bright as the golden circlet on her brow or the yellow corn in her garners; and her step was as light and proud and free as that of the deer in her wide domains. She lived in a stately castle in the midst of great forests, with the cottages of her tribesmen around her gates, and day by day and year by
year she watched the changing glories of the mighty woods, as the seasons brought new beauties, till her soul was as lovely as the green woods and purple hills around. The Countess Cathleen loved the dim, mysterious forest, she loved the tales of the ancient gods, and of
but more than all she loved her clansmen and vassals: she prayed for them at all the holy hours, and taught and tended them with loving care, so that in no place in Ireland could be found a happier tribe than that which obeyed her gentle rule.
One year there fell upon Ireland, erewhile so happy a great desolation--"For Scripture saith, an ending to all good things must be" 1--and the happiness of the Countess Cathleen's tribe came to an end in this wise: A terrible famine fell on the land; the seed-corn rotted in the ground, for rain and never-lifting mists filled the heavy air and lay on the sodden earth; then when spring came barren fields lay brown where the shooting corn should be; the cattle died in the stall or fell from weakness at the plough, and the sheep died of hunger in the fold; as the year passed through summer towards autumn the berries failed in the sun-parched woods, and the withered leaves, fallen long before the time, lay rotting on the dank earth; the timid wild things of the forest, hares, rabbits, squirrels, died in their holes or fell easy victims to the birds and beasts of prey; and these, in their turn, died of hunger in the famine-stricken forests.
A cry of bitter agony and lamentation rose from the starving Isle of Saints to the gates of Heaven, and fell back unheard; the sky was hard as brass above, and the earth was barren beneath, and men and women died in despair, their shrivelled lips still stained green by the dried grass and twigs they had striven to eat.
In vain the High King of Ireland proclaimed a universal peace, and wars between quarrelling tribes stopped and foreign pirates ceased to molest the land, and chief met chief in the common bond of misery; in vain the rich gave freely of their wealth--soon there was no distinction between rich and poor, high and low, chief and vassal, for all alike felt the grip of famine, all died by the same terrible hunger. Soon many of the great monasteries lay desolate, their stores exhausted, their portals open, while the brethren, dead within, had none to bury them; the lonely hermits died in their little beehive-shaped cells, or fled from the dreadful solitude to gather in some wealthy abbey which could still feed its monks; and isle and vale which had echoed their holy chants knew the sounds no more. Over all, unlifting, unchanging, brooded the deadly vapour, bearing the plague in its heavy folds, and filling the air with a, sultry lurid haze.
Round the castle of the Countess Cathleen there was great stir and bustle, for her tender heart was wrung with the misery of her people, and her prayers for them ascended to God unceasingly. So thin she grew and so worn that the physicians bade her servants bring harp and song to charm away the sadness that weighed upon her spirit; but all in vain! Neither the well-loved legends of the ancient gods, nor her harp, nor the voice of her bards could bring her relief--nothing but the attempt to save her people. From the earliest days of the famine her house and her stores were ever ready to supply the wants of the homeless, the poor, the suffering; her wealth was freely spent for food for the starving while supplies could yet be bought either near or in distant baronies; and when known supplies failed her lavish offers tempted the churlish farmers, who still hoarded grain that they might enrich themselves in the great dearth, to sell some of their garnered stores. When she could no longer induce them to part with their grain, her own winter provisions, wine and corn, were distributed generously to all who asked for relief, and none ever left her castle without succour.
Thus passed the early months of bitter starvation, and the Countess Cathleen's name was borne far and wide through Ireland, accompanied with the blessings of all the rescued; and round her castle, from every district, gathered a mighty throng of poor--not only her own clansmen--who all looked to her for a daily dole of
food and drink to keep some life in them until the pestilential mists should pass away. The wholesome cold of winter would purify the air and bring new hope and promise of new life in the coming year. Alas! the winter drew on apace and still the poisonous yellow vapours hung heavily over the land, and still the deadly famine clutched each feeble heart and weakened the very springs of life, and the winter frosts slew more than the summer heats, so feeble were the people and so weakened.
At last, even in the Isle of Saints, the bonds of right and wrong were loosened, all respect for property vanished in the universal desolation, and men began to rob and plunder, to trust only to the right of might, thinking that their poor miserable lives were of more value than aught else, than conscience and pity and honesty. Thus Cathleen lost by barefaced robbery much of what she still possessed of flocks and herds, or scanty fruit and corn. Her servants would gladly have pursued the robbers and regained the spoils, but Cathleen forbade it, for she pitied the miserable thieves, and thought no evil of them in this bitter dearth. By this time she had distributed all her winter stores, and had only enough to feed her poor pensioners and her household with most scanty rations; and she herself shared equally with them, for the most earnest entreaties of her faithful servants could not induce her to fare better than they in anything. Soon there would be nothing left for daily distribution, and her heart almost broke as she saw the misery of her helpless dependents; they looked to her as an angel of pity and deliverance, while she knew herself to be as helpless as they. Day by day Cathleen went among them, with her pitifully scanty doles of
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''Day by day Cathleen went among them''
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The Peasant's Story
food, cheering them by her words and smiles, and by her very presence; and each day she went to her chapel, where she could cast aside the mask of cheerfulness she wore before her people, and prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints to show her how to save her own tribe and all the land.
As the Countess knelt long before the altar one noon-tide she passed from her prayers into a deep sleep, and sank down on the altar steps. In the troubled depths of her mind a thought arose, which came to her as an inspiration from Heaven itself. She awoke and sprang up joyfully, exclaiming aloud: "Thanks be to Our Lady and to all the saints! To them alone the blessed thought is due. Thus can I save my poor until the dearth is over."
Then Cathleen left her oratory with such a light heart as she had not felt since the terrible visitation began, and the gladness in her face was so new and wonderful that all her servants noticed the change, and her old foster-mother, who loved the Countess with the utmost devotion, shuddered at the thought that perhaps her darling had come under the power of the ancient gods and would be bewitched away to Tir-nan-og, the land of never-dying youth. Fearfully old Oona watched Cathleen's face as she passed through the hall, and Cathleen saw the anxious gaze, and came and laid her hand on the old woman's shoulder, saying, "Nay, fear not, nurse; the saints have heard my prayer and put it into my heart to save all these helpless ones." Then she crossed the hall to her own room, and called a servant, saying, "Send hither quickly Fergus my steward."
Shortly afterwards the steward came, Fergus the White, an old grey-haired man, who had been foster-brother to Cathleen's grandfather. He had seen three generations pass away, he had watched the change from heathenism to Christianity, and of all the chief's family, to which his loyal devotion had ever clung, there remained but this one young girl, and he loved her as his own child. Fergus did obeisance to his liege lady, and kissed her hand kneeling as he asked:
"What would the Countess Cathleen with her steward? Shall I render my account of lands and wealth?"
"How much have I in lands?" the Countess asked. And Fergus answered in surprise: "Your lands are worth one hundred thousand pounds."
"Of what value is the timber in my forests?" "As much again."
"What is the worth of my castles and my fair residences?" continued the Countess Cathleen. And Fergus still replied: "As much more," though in his heart he questioned why his lady wished to know now, while the famine made all riches seem valueless.
"How much gold still unspent lies in thy charge in my treasure-chests?"
"Lady, your stored gold is three hundred thousand pounds, as much as all your lands and forests and houses are worth."
The Countess Cathleen thought for an instant, and then, as one who makes a momentous decision, spoke firmly, though her lips quivered as she gave utterance to her thought:
"Then, Fergus, take my bags of coin and go. Leave here my jewels and some gold, for I may hear of some stores of grain hoarded by niggard farmers, and may induce them to sell, if not for the love of God, then for the love of gold. Take, too, authority from me, written and sealed with my seal, to sell all my lands and timber, and castles, except this one alone where I must dwell. Send a man, trustworthy and speedy, to the North, to Ulster, where I hear the famine is less terrible, and let him buy what cattle he can find, and drive them back as soon as may be."
"Keeping this house alone, sell all I have; Go to some distant country, and come again With many herds of cows and ships of grain."
The ancient steward, Fergus the White, stood at first speechless with horror and grief, but after a moment of silence his sorrow found vent in words, and he besought his dear lady not to sell everything, her ancient home, her father's lands, her treasured heirlooms, and leave herself no wealth for happier times. All his persuasions were useless, for Cathleen would not be moved; she bade him "Farewell" and hastened his journey, saying, "A cry is in mine ears; I cannot rest." So there was no help for it. A trusty man was despatched to Ulster to buy up all the cattle (weak and famine-stricken as they would be) in the North Country; while Fergus himself journeyed swiftly to England, which was still prosperous and fertile, untouched by the deadly famine, and knowing nothing of the desolation of the sister isle, to which the English owed so much of their knowledge of the True Faith.
In England Fergus spent all the gold he brought with him, and then sold all the Countess Cathleen bade him sell--lands, castles, forests, pastures, timber--all but one lonely castle in the desolate woods, where she dwelt among her own people, with the dying folk thronging round her gates and in her halls. Good bargains Fergus made also, for he was a shrewd and loyal steward, and the saints must have touched the hearts of the English merchants, so that they gave good prices for all, or perhaps they did not realize the dire distress that prevailed in Ireland. However that may have been, Fergus prospered in his trading, and bought grain, and wine, and fat oxen and sheep, so that he loaded many ships with full freights of provisions, enough to carry the starving peasantry through the famine year till the next harvest. At last all his money was spent, all his ships were laden, everything was ready, and the little fleet lay in harbour, only awaiting a fair wind, which, unhappily, did not come.
First of all Fergus waited through a deadly calm, when the sails hung motionless, drooping, with no breath of air to stir them, when the fog that brooded over the shores of England never lifted and all sailing was impossible; then the winds dispersed the fog, and Fergus, forgetting caution in his great anxiety to return, hastily set sail for his own land, and there came fierce tempests and contrary winds, so that his little fleet was driven back, and one or two ships went down with all their stores of food. Fergus wept to see his lady's wealth lost in the wintry sea, but he dared not venture again, and though he chafed and fretted at
the delay, it was nearly two months after he reached England before he could sail back to his young mistress and her starving countrymen. The trusty messenger who had been sent to buy cattle had succeeded beyond his own expectation; he also had made successful bargains, and had found more cattle than he believed were still alive in Ireland. He had bought all, and was driving them slowly towards the Countess Cathleen's forest dwelling. Their progress was so slow, because of their weakness and the scanty fodder by the way, that no news of them came to Cathleen, and she knew not that while corn and cattle were coming with Fergus across the sea, food was also coming to her slowly through the barren ways of her own native land. None of this she knew, and despair would have filled her heart, but for her faith in God and her belief in the great inspiration that had been given to her.
Meanwhile terrible things had been happening in Ireland. As in England in later days, "men said openly that Christ and His saints slept"; they thought with longing of the mighty old gods, for the new seemed powerless, and they yearned for the friendly "good people" who had fled from the sound of the church hell. Thus many minds were ready to revolt from the Christian faith if they had not feared the life after death and the endless torments of the Christian Hell. Some few, desperate, even offered secret worship to the old heathen gods, and true love to the One True God had grown cold.
Now on the very day on which Fergus sailed for England, and his comrade departed to Ulster, two mysterious
and stately strangers suddenly appeared in Erin. Whence they came no man knew, but they were first seen near the wild seashore of the west, and the few poor inhabitants thought they had been put ashore by some vessel or wrecked on that dangerous coast. Aliens they certainly were, for they talked with each other in a tongue that none understood, and they appeared as if they did not comprehend the questions asked of them. Thus they passed away from the western coasts, and made their way inland; but when they next appeared, in a village not far from Dublin, they had greatly changed: they wore magnificent robes and furs, with splendid jewelled gloves on their hands, and golden circlets, set with gleaming rubies, bound their brows; their black steeds showed no trace of weakness and famine as they rode through the woods and carefully noted the misery everywhere.
At last they alighted at the little lodge, where a forester's widow gladly received them; and their royal dress, lofty bearing and strange language accorded ill with the mean surroundings and the scanty accommodation of that little hut. The dead forester had been one of the Countess Cathleen's most faithful vassals, and his holding was but a short distance from the castle, so that the strangers could, unobserved, watch the life of the little village. As time passed they told their hostess they were merchants, simple traders from a distant country, trafficking in very precious gems; but they had no wares for exchange, and no gems to show; they made no inquiries or researches, bargained with no man, seemed to do no business; they were the most unusual merchants ever seen in Ireland, and the strangeness of their behaviour troubled men's minds.
Day by day they ate, unquestioning, the coarse food their poor hostess set before them, and the black bread which was the best food obtainable in those terrible days, but they added to it wine, rich and red, from their own private store, and they paid her lavishly in good red gold, so that she wondered that any men should stay in the famine-stricken country when they could so easily leave it at their will. Gradually, too, speaking now in the Irish tongue, they began to ask her cautious questions of the people, of the land, of the famine, how men lived and how they died, and so they heard of the exceeding goodness of the Countess Cathleen, whose bounty had saved so many lives, and was still saving others, though the deadly pinch of famine grew sorer with the passing days. To their hostess they admired Cathleen's goodness, and were loud in her praises, but they looked askance at one another and their brows were black with discontent.
Then one day the kingly merchants told the poor widow who harboured them that they too were the friends of the poor and starving; they were servants of a mighty prince, who in his compassion and mercy had sent them on a mission to Ireland to help the afflicted peasants to fight against famine and death. They said that they themselves had no food to give, only wine and gold in plenty, so that men might exert themselves and search for food to buy. Their hostess, hearing this, and knowing that there were still some niggards who refused to part with their mouldering heaps of corn, setting the price so high that no man could buy, called down the blessing of God and Mary
and all the saints upon their heads, for if they would distribute their gold to all, or even buy the corn themselves and distribute it, men need no longer die of hunger.
When she prayed for a blessing on the two strangers they smiled scornfully and impatiently; and the elder said, cunningly:
"Ah, sirs!" replied the hostess, "then your compassion, your gold and your goodwill are of no avail. Think you, after all these weary months, that any man has merchandise left to sell? They have sold long ago all but the very clothes they wear, to keep themselves alive till better days come. Such offers are mockery of our distress."
"We mock you not," said the elder merchant. "All men have the one precious thing we wish to buy, and have come hither to find; none has already lost or sold it."
"What precious treasure can you mean? Men in Ireland now have only their lives, and can barely cherish those," said the poor woman, wondering greatly and much afraid.
The elder merchant continued gazing at her with a crafty smile and an eye ever on the alert for tokens of understanding. "Poor as they are, Irishmen have still one thing that we will purchase, if they will sell: their souls, which we have come to obtain for our mighty Prince, and with the great price that we shall pay in
pure gold men can well save their lives till the starving time is over. Why should men die a cruel, lingering death or drag through weary months of miserable half-satisfied life when they may live well and merrily at the cost of a soul, which is no good but to cause fear and pain? We take men's souls and liberate them from all pain and care and remorse, and we give in exchange money, much money, to procure comforts and ease; we enrol men as vassals of our great lord, and he is no hard taskmaster to those who own his sway."
When the poor widow heard these dreadful words she knew that the strangers were demons come to tempt men's souls and to lure them to Hell. She crossed herself, and fled from them in fear, praying to be kept from temptation; and she would not return to her little cottage in the forest, but stayed in the village warning men against the evil demons who were tempting the starving people, till she too died of the famine, and her house was left wholly to the strangers. Yet the merchants fared ever well, better than before her departure, and those who ventured to the forest dwelling found good food and rich wine, which the strangers sometimes gave to their visitors, with crafty hints of abundance to be easily obtained. Then when timid individuals asked the way to win these comforts the strangers began their tempting, and represented the ease to be gained by the sale of men's souls. One man, bolder than the rest, made a bargain with the demons and gave them his soul for three hundred crowns of gold, and from that time he in his turn became a tempter. He boasted of his wealth, of the rich food the merchants gave him at times, of the potent wine he drank from their generously opened bottles, and,
best of all, he vaunted his freedom from pity, conscience, or remorse.
Gradually many people came to the forest dwelling and trafficked with the demon merchants. The purchase of souls went on busily, and the demons paid prices varying according to the worth of the soul and the record of its former sins; but to all who sold they gave food and wine, and in gloating over their gold, and satisfying hunger and thirst, men forgot to ask whence came this food and wine and the endless stores of coin. Now many people ventured into the forest to deal with the demons, and the narrow track grew into a broad beaten way with the numbers of those who came, and all returned fed and warmed, and bearing bags heavy with coin, and the promise of abundant food and easy service. Those who had sold their souls rioted with the money, for the demons gave them food, and they bought wine from the inexhaustible stores of the evil merchants. The poor, lost people knew that there was no hope for them after death, and they tried by all means to keep themselves alive and to enjoy what was yet left to them; but their mirth was fearful and they durst not stop to think.
At first the Countess Cathleen knew nothing of the terrible doings of the demons, for she never passed beyond her castle gates, but spent her time in prayer for her people's safety and for the speedy return of her messengers; but when the starving throng of pensioners at her gates grew daily less, and there were fewer claimants for the pitiful allowance which was all she had to give, she wondered if some other mightier helper had come
to Ireland. But she could hear of none, and soon the shameless rioting and drunkenness in the village came to her knowledge, and she wondered yet more whence her clansmen obtained the means for their excesses, for she felt instinctively that the origin of all this rioting must be evil. Cathleen therefore called to her an old peasant, whose wife had died of hunger in the early days of the famine, so that he himself had longed to die and join her; but when he came to her she was horror-struck by the change in him. Now he came flushed with wine, with defiant look and insolent bearing, and his face was full of evil mirth as he tried to answer soberly the Countess's questions.
"Why do the villagers and strangers no longer come to me for food? I have but little now to give, but all are welcome to share it with me and my household."
"They do not come, O Countess, because they are no longer starving. They have better food and wine, and abundance of money to buy more."
"Whence then have they obtained the money, the food, and the wine for the drinking-bouts, the tumult of which reaches me even in my oratory?"
Lady, they have received all from the generous merchants who are in the forest dwelling where old Mairi formerly lived; she is dead now, and these noble strangers keep open house in her cottage night and day; they are so wealthy that they need not stint their bounty, and so powerful that they can find good food, enough for all who go to them. Since Brigit died (your old servant, lady) her husband and son work no more, but serve the strange merchants, and urge all men to join them; and I, and many others, have
done so, and we are now wealthy" (here he showed the Countess a handful of gold) "and well fed, and have wine as much as heart can desire."
"But do you give them nothing in return for all their generosity? Are they so noble that they ask nothing in requital of their bounty?"
"Oh, yes, we give them something, but nothing of importance, nothing we cannot spare. They arc merchants of souls, and buy them for their king, and they pay good red gold for the useless, painful things. I have sold my soul to them, and now I weep no more for my wife; I am gay, and have wine enough and gold enough to help me through this dearth!"
"Alas!" sighed the Countess, "and what when you too die?" The old peasant laughed at her grief as he said: "Then, as now, I shall have no soul to trouble me with remorse or conscience"; and the Countess covered her eyes with her hand and beckoned silently that he should go. In her oratory, whither she betook herself immediately, she prayed with all her spirit that the Virgin and all the saints would inspire her to defeat the demons and to save her people's souls.
Next day Cathleen called together all the people in the village, her own tribesmen and strangers. She offered them again a share of all she had, and the daily rations she could distribute, but told them that all must share alike and that she had nothing but the barest necessaries to give--scanty portions of corn and meal, with milk from one or two famine-stricken cows her servants had managed to keep alive. To this she added that she had sent two trusty messengers for help,
one to Ulster for cattle, and Fergus to England for corn and wine; they must return soon, she felt sure, with abundant supplies, if men would patiently await their return.
But all was useless. Her messengers, had sent no word of their return, and the abundant supplies at the forest cottage were more easily obtained, and were less carefully regulated, than those of the Countess Cathleen. The merchants, too, were ever at hand with their cunning wiles, and their active, persuasive dupes, who would gladly bring all others into their own soulless condition. The wine given by the demons warmed the hearts of all who drank, and the deceived peasants dreamed of happiness when the famine was over, and so the passionate appeal of the Countess failed, and the sale of souls continued merrily. The noise of revelry grew daily louder and more riotous, and the drinkers cared nothing for the death or departure or their dearest friends; while those who died, died drunken and utterly reckless, or full of horror and despair, reviling the crafty merchants who had deceived them with promises of life and happiness. The evil influence clung all about the countryside, and seemed in league with the pitiless powers of Nature against the souls of men, till at last the stricken Countess, putting her trust in God, sought out the forest lodge where the demon merchants dwelt, trafficking for souls. The way was easy to find now, for a broad beaten track led to the dwelling, and as the evil spirits saw Cathleen coming slowly along the path their wicked eyes gleamed and their clawlike hands worked convulsively in their jewelled gloves, for they hoped she had come to sell her pure soul.
"What does the Countess Cathleen wish to obtain from two poor stranger merchants?" said the elder with an evil smile; and the younger, bowing deeply, said: "Lady, you may command us in all things, save what touches our allegiance to our king." Cathleen replied: "I have no merchandise to barter, nothing for trade with you, for you buy such things as I will never sell: you buy men's souls for Hell. I come only to beg that you will release the poor souls whom you have bought for Satan's kingdom, and will have mercy on my ignorant people and deceive them no more. I have yet some gold unspent and jewels unsold: take all here is, but let my people go free." Then the merchants laughed aloud scornfully, and rejected her offer. "Would you have us undo our work? Have we toiled, then, for naught to extend our master's sway? Have we won for him so many souls to dwell for ever in his kingdom and do his work, and shall we give them back for your entreaties? We have gold enough, and food and wine enough, fair lady. The souls we have bought we keep, for our master gives us honour and rank proportioned to the number of souls we win for him, and you may see by the golden circlets round our brows that we are princes of his kingdom, and have brought him countless souls. Nevertheless, there is one most rare and precious thing which could redeem these bartered souls of Ireland's peasants, things of little worth."
"Oh, what is that?" said the Countess. "If I have it, or can in any way procure it, tell me, that I may redeem these deluded people's souls."
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''Cathleen signed the bond''
"You have it now, fair saint. It is one pure soul, precious as multitudes of more sin-stained souls. Our master would far rather have a perfect and flawless pearl for his diadem than myriads of these cracked and flawed crystals. Your soul, most saintly Countess, would redeem the souls of all your tribe, if you would sell it to our king; it would be the fairest jewel in his crown. But think not to save your people otherwise, and beguile them no longer with false promises of help: your messenger to Ulster lies sick of ague in the Bog of Allen, and no food comes from England."
When Cathleen heard of the failure of her messengers to bring food it seemed as if all hope were indeed over, and the demons smiled craftily upon her as she turned silently to go, and laughed joyously to each other when she had left their presence. Now they had good hope to win her for their master; but they knew that their time was short, since help was not far away.
The Countess then went back in bitter grief to her desolate castle, where only faithful old servants now waited in the halls, and whispered together in the dark corners, and, kneeling in her oratory, she prayed far into the night for light in her darkness. As she prayed before the altar she slept for very weariness, and was aroused by a sudden furious knocking, and an outcry of "Thieves! Thieves!" Cathleen rose quickly from the altar steps, and met her foster-mother, Oona, at the door of the oratory; and Oona cried aloud: "Thieves have broken into the treasure-chamber, and nothing is left!" Cathleen asked if this were true, and discovered that not a single coin, not a single gem was left: the demons had stolen all. And while the servants still mourned over the lost treasures of the house there came another cry of "Thieves! Thieves!" and an old peasant rushed in, exclaiming that all the food was gone. That, alas! was true: the few sacks of meal which supplied the scanty daily fare were emptied and the bags flung on the floor. Now indeed the last poor resource was gone.
When the Countess heard of this last terrible misfortune a great light broke upon her mind with a blinding flash, and showed her a way to save others, even at the cost of her own salvation. It seemed God's answer to her prayer for guidance, and she resolved to follow the inspiration thus sent into her mind. She decided now what she would do; her mind was made up, and the light which shines from extreme sacrifice of self was so bright upon her face that her old nurse and her servants, wailing around her, were
awe-stricken and durst not question or check her. She returned to her oratory door, and, standing on the steps, looking down on her weeping domestics, she cried:
With one last long gaze at the little altar of her oratory she resolutely closed the door and turned away.
The next day the merchants in their forest lodge were still buying souls, and giving food and wine to the starving peasants who sold. They were buying men and women, sinful, terrified, afraid to die, eager to live; buying them more cheaply than before because of the increase of sin and terror. Bargains were being struck and bartering was in full progress, when suddenly all the peasants stopped, shamefaced, as one said, "Here comes the Countess Cathleen," and down the track she was seen approaching slowly. One by one the peasants slunk away, and the demon merchants were quite alone when Cathleen entered the little cottage where they sat, with bags of coin on the table before them and on the ground beside them. Again they greeted her with mocking respect, and asked to know her will.
"Merchants, do you still buy souls for Hell?"
"Lady, our traffic prospers, for the famine lies long on the land, and men would fain live till better days come again. Besides, we can give them food and wine and wealth for future years; and all in exchange for a mere soul, a little breath of wind."
"Perhaps the Countess Cathleen has come to deal with us," said the younger.
"Merchant, you are right; I have come to bring you merchandise. I have a soul to sell, so costly that perhaps the price is beyond your means."
The elder merchant replied joyfully: "No price is beyond our means, if only the soul be worth the price; if it be a pure and stainless soul, fit to join the angels and saints in Paradise, our master will gladly pay all you ask. Whose is the soul, and what is the price?"
When the demons heard this, and knew that Cathleen was willing to give her own soul as ransom for the souls of others, they were overjoyed, their eyes flashed, the rubies of their golden crowns shot out fiery gleams, and their fingers clutched the air as if they already held her stainless soul. This would be a great triumph to their master, and they would win great honour in Hell when they brought him a soul worth far, far more than large abundance of ordinary sinful souls. Very carefully they watched while the trembling Countess signed the bond which gave her soul to Hell, very gladly they paid down the money for which she had stipulated, and very joyously they saw the signs of speedy death in her face, knowing, as they did, how soon the coming relief
would show her sacrifice to have been unnecessary, though now it was irrevocable.
Sadly but resolutely she turned away, followed by her servants bearing the bags of gold, and as she passed through the village a rumour ran before her of what she had done. All men were sobered by the terrible tidings, and the redeemed people waited for her coming, and followed her weeping and lamenting, for now their souls were free again, and they recognised the great sacrifice she had made for them; but it was too late to save her, though now all would have died for her. Cathleen passed on into her castle, and there in the courtyard she distributed the money to all her people, and bade them dwell quietly in obedience till her steward returned.. She herself, she said, could not stay; she must go on a long and dark journey, for her people's need had broken her heart and conquered her; she was no longer her own, but belonged to the dark lord of Hell; she could not bid them pray for her, nor could she pray for herself.
Her people, who knew the great price at which she had redeemed them, besought the Blessed Virgin and all the saints to have mercy on her; and all the souls she had released, on earth and in Heaven, prayed for her night and day, and the blessed saints interceded for her. Yet from day to day the Countess Cathleen faded, and the demons, ceasing all other traffic, lurked in waiting to catch her soul as she died. Night and day her heart-broken foster-mother Oona tended her; but she grew feebler, till it seemed that she would die before Fergus returned.
On the fifth day, however, glad tidings came. Fergus had landed, and sent word that he was bringing corn and meal as quickly as possible; also a wandering peasant brought a message that nine hundred oxen were within one day's journey of her castle; and when the gentle Cathleen heard this, and knew that her people were safe, she died with a smile on her lips and thanks to God for her people on her tongue. That same night a great tempest broke over the land, which drove away the pestilential mists, and left the country free from evil influences, for with the morning men found the forest lodge crushed beneath the fallen trees, and the two demon merchants vanished. All gathered round the castle and mourned for the Countess Cathleen, for none knew how it would go with her spirit; they feared that the evil demons had borne her soul to Hell. All had prayed for her, but there had been no sign, no token of forgiveness. Nevertheless their prayers were heard and answered.
In the next night, when the great storm had passed away and the vapours no longer filled the air, when Fergus had distributed food and wine, and the oxen had been apportioned to every family, so that plenty reigned in every house, when only Cathleen's castle lay desolate, shrouded in gloom, the faithful old nurse Oona, watching by the body of her darling, had a glorious vision. She saw the splendid armies of the angels who guard mankind from evil, she saw the saints who had suffered and overcome, and amid them was the Countess Cathleen, happy with saints and angels in the bliss of Paradise; for her love had redeemed her own soul as well as the
souls of others, and God had pardoned her sin because of her self-sacrifice.
159:1 C. Kingsley.
160:1 The poetical quotations throughout this story are taken, by permission, from Mr. W. B. Yeats's play "The Countess Cathleen."