Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 104

“The people starve, therefore the people go
Thronging to you. I hear a cry come from them,
And it is in my ears by night and day:
And I would have five hundred thousand crowns,
To find food for them till the dearth go by;
And have the wretched spirits you have bought
For your gold crowns, released, and sent to God.
The soul that I would barter is my soul.”

The Bond Signed

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

“Cathleen signed the bond”

General Lamentation

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.

Cathleen Fades Away

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.

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The Steward Returns

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.

The Demons Cheated

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 [Pg 183] souls of others, and God had pardoned her sin because of her self-sacrifice.

“The light beats down: the gates of pearl are wide,
And she is passing to the floor of peace,
And Mary of the seven times wounded heart
Has kissed her lips, and the long blessed hair
Has fallen on her face; the Light of Lights
Looks always on the motive, not the deed,
The Shadow of Shadows on the deed alone.”


[15] C. Kingsley.

[16] The poetical quotations throughout this story are taken, by permission, from Mr. W. B. Yeats’s play “The Countess Cathleen.”

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AMONG all the early literatures of Europe, there are two which, at exactly opposite corners of the continent, display most strikingly similar characteristics, characteristics which apparently point to some racial affinity in the peoples who produced them. These literatures are the Greek and the Irish. It has been maintained with much ingenuity that the Greeks of Homer, the early Britons, and the Irish Celts were all of one stock, as shown by the many points they had in common. It is certain that in customs, manner of life, ethics, ideas of religion, and methods of warfare a striking similarity may be seen between the Greeks as described by Homer and the Britons as Julius Cæsar knew them, or the Irish as their own legends reveal them. We must expect to find in their myths and legends a certain resemblance of Celtic ideas to Greek ideas; and if the great Achilles sulks in his tent because he is unjustly deprived of his captive, the fair Briseis, we shall not be surprised to find the Champion of Erin quarrelling over his claim to precedence. The contest between the heroes for the armour of dead Achilles is paralleled by this contest between the three greatest warriors of Ireland for the special dish of honour called the “Champion’s Portion,” a distinction which also recalls Greek life.