Yeats' FAIRY AND FOLK TALES OF THE IRISH PEASANTRY

THE COUNTESS KATHLEEN O'SHEA1

   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 shamefaced.
   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 despair.
   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 sapphire?"
   "Today I am come to offer you a bargain," replied she.
   "What?"
   "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 disturb her.
   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 grief.
   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.

Footnotes

1. This was quoted in a London-Irish newspaper. I am unable to find out the original source.

Aran Islanders, J. Synge [1898] (public domain photograph)