Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 97

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 [Pg 170] 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.

A New Traffic

When she prayed for a blessing on the two strangers they smiled scornfully and impatiently; and the elder said, cunningly:

“Alas! we know the evils of mere charity,
And would devise a more considered way.
Let each man bring one piece of merchandise.”

“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.

Buyers of Souls

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 [Pg 171] 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.”