Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 96

Two Mysterious Strangers

Now on the very day on which Fergus sailed for England, and his comrade departed to Ulster, two mysterious [Pg 168] and stately strangers suddenly appeared in Erin. Whence they came no man knew, but they were first seen near the wild sea-shore 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.

Their Strange Story

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.

[Pg 169]

Mysterious Behaviour

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.

Professed Errand of Mercy