Yeats' FAIRY AND FOLK
TALES OF THE IRISH PEASANTRY
THE COUNTESS KATHLEEN
A very long time ago, there suddenly appeared
in old Ireland two unknown
merchants of whom nobody had ever heard, and who nevertheless spoke the language
of the country with the greatest perfection. Their locks wore black, and bound
round with gold, and their garments were of rare magnificence.
Both seemed of like age; they appeared to be men of fifty, for their
foreheads were wrinkled and their beards tinged with grey.
In the hostelry where the pompous traders alighted it was sought to penetrate
their designs; but in vain--they led a silent and retired life. And whilst they
stopped there, they did nothing but count over and over again out of their
money-bags pieces of gold, whose yellow brightness could be seen through the
windows of their lodging.
"Gentlemen," said the landlady one day, "how is it that you are so rich, and
that, being able to succour the public misery, you do no good works?"
"Fair hostess," replied one of them, "we didn't like to present alms to the
honest poor, in dread we might be deceived by make-believe paupers. Let want
knock at our door, we shall open it."
The following day, when the rumour spread that two rich strangers had come,
ready to lavish their gold, a crowd besieged their dwelling; but the figures of
those who came out were widely different. Some carried pride in their mien; others were
The two chapmen traded in souls for the demon. The souls of the aged was
worth twenty pieces of gold, not a penny more; for Satan had had time to make
his valuation. The soul of a matron was valued at fifty, when she was handsome,
and a hundred when she was ugly. The soul of a young maiden fetched an
extravagant sum; the freshest and purest flowers are the dearest.
At that time there lived in the city an angel of beauty the Countess Kathleen
O'Shea. She was the idol of the people and the providence of the indigent. As
soon as she learned that these miscreants profited to the public misery to steal
away hearts from God, she called to her butler.
"Patrick," said she to him, "how many pieces of gold in my coffers?"
"A hundred thousand."
"How many jewels?"
"The money's worth of gold."
"How much property in castles, forests, and lands?"
"Double the rest."
"Very well, Patrick; sell all that is not gold; and bring me the account. I
only wish to keep this mansion and the demesne that surrounds it."
Two days afterwards the orders of the pious Kathleen were executed, and the
treasure was distributed to the poor in proportion to their wants. This, says
the tradition, did not suit the purposes of the Evil Spirit, who found no more
souls to purchase. Aided by an infamous servant, they penetrated into the
retreat of the noble dame, and purloined from her the rest of her treasure. In
vain she struggled with all her strength to save the contents of her coffers;
the diabolical thieves were the stronger. If Kathleen had been able to make the
sign of the Cross, adds the legend, she would have put them to flight, but her
hands were captive. The larceny was effected.
Then the poor called for aid to the plundered Kathleen,
alas, to no good: she was able to succour their misery no longer; she had to
abandon them to the temptation.
Meanwhile, but eight days had to pass before the grain and provender would
arrive in abundance from the western lands. Eight such days were an age. Eight
days required an immense sum to relieve the exigencies of the dearth, and the
poor should either perish in the agonies of hunger, or, denying the holy maxims
of the Gospel, vend, for base lucre, their souls, the richest gift from the
bounteous hand of the Almighty. And Kathleen hadn't anything, for she had given
up her mansion to the unhappy. She passed twelve hours in tears and mourning,
rending her sun-tinted hair, and bruising her breast, of the whiteness of the
lily; afterwards she stood up, resolute, animated by a vivid sentiment of
She went to the traders in souls.
"What do you want?" they said.
"You buy souls?"
"Yes, a few still, in spite of you. Isn't that so, saint, with the eyes of
"Today I am come to offer you a bargain," replied she.
"I have a soul to sell, but it is costly."
"What does that signify if it is precious? The soul, like the diamond, is
appraised by its transparency."
"It is mine."
The two emissaries of Satan started. Their claws were clutched under their
gloves of leather; their grey eyes sparkled; the soul, pure, spotless, virginal
of Kathleen--it was a priceless acquisition!
"Beauteous lady, how much do you ask?"
"A hundred and fifty thousand pieces of gold."
"It's at your service," replied the traders, and they tendered Kathleen a
parchment sealed with black, which she signed with a shudder.
The sum was counted out to her.
As soon as she got home she said to the butler, "Here distribute this: with
this money that I give you the poor can tide over the eight days that remain, and not one of their souls will be
delivered to the demon."
Afterwards she shut herself up in her room, and gave orders that none should
Three days passed; she called nobody, she did not come out.
When the door was opened, they found her cold and stiff; she was dead of
But the sale of this soul, so adorable in its charity, was declared null by
the Lord; for she had saved her fellow-citizens from eternal death.
After the eight days had passed, numerous vessels brought into famished
Ireland immense provisions in grain. Hunger was no longer possible. As to the
traders, they disappeared from their hotel without anyone knowing what became of
them. But the fishermen of the Blackwater pretend that they are enchained in a
subterranean prison by order of Lucifer, until they shall be able to render up
the soul of Kathleen, which escaped from them.
was quoted in a London-Irish newspaper. I am unable to find out the original