Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Page: 98Slow Trade at First
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 case 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, [Pg 172] 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.
Cathleen Hears of the Demon Traders
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 [Pg 173] 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.