Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 94

“Day by day Cathleen went among them”

Cathleen Has an Inspiration

As the Countess knelt long before the altar one noontide 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.”

[Pg 164]

She Summons her 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?”

Demands to Know what Wealth she Owns

“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:

[Pg 165]

“Go Far and Buy Food”

“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 Steward Reluctantly Obeys

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.

[Pg 166]