We had been in the middle of our story-tellin', with all our seats drawn close together round Shemishin's big hearth fire. The storm of rain and sleet without gave us no bother, only made us enjoy the comfort of the big fire, and the great stories, far more keenly. But in the middle of an excitin' story of Paudeen Mor's—a fearful adventure of his in the wilds of Georgia, when he was carrying the pack there, the latch rattled, and the door burst open, and into the middle of the floor stepped a man, with a scared look on his face, and out of whose clinging clothes, streams of water were running, and pouring over the floor. The wet hair came down his brows and fell in wet tongues, and streams were running from it. His hat leaf drooped over all like a limp rag.
"God bliss all here!" he said."And yerself likewise," we said, when we got our breaths.
"Thank God!" said he from his heart. "It's me is the glad man to get a Christian roof over me head. I've been tuk."
"What? By the fairies? On such a night?"
"The fairies," Shemishin said, rebuking us, "wouldn't take any Christun on such a night."
"They wouldn't," said the stranger, "and didn't. I was tuk by Willie-the-Wisp."
"God help ye, poor man," Shemishin said, "ye had a narrow escape." And, "God help ye, poor man," we all said, and made room for him amongst us.
"I'm Neil a-Mughan of Tievahurkey," said he. "I was comin' from Donegal where I was in payin' the rent to Misther Martin. It was mortial dark an' I feared I'd lose me way. Two mile back I seen the light in from me, an' I dhrew on it thinkin' of course it was a house. An' as I stumbled on, it seemed farther and farther away. I was gettin' deeper in the mire at every step I tuk, but I sthruggled on for the dear life to reach that light. I darsay it tuk me a long mile, among such marshes and bog-holes that only God willed it, and I had some poor body's prayer about me, I couldn't have escaped with the life. Three times runnin' I was steppin' intil a bog-hole when somethin' (I thought) toul' me not to lay down me foot—I held it back, and looked, and the black bottomless wather lay right at me toe—"
"Musha, God was by ye."
"He was. Thanks be till Him, this night."—
"Well, when I'd gone the full mile, an' seen I was only gettin' more hopelesser into the bog, it sthruck me like a flash that it was no other nor Willie-the-Wisp, and all at wanst, I seen how I'd been deluded and a'most lost. But there I was in the middle of a black threacherous bog in a night as sleety and wet as sorra, and as dark as the inside of a cow, an' where the next step might mean death. I turned, as nearly as I could think, in the same direction I had come—an' yous may take my word for it that I was prayin' faster nor I was used to. If I have any idea of time that's two solid hours ago—and here I am now! This is the first sign of Christianity I've seen. How I got out of the bog is more nor I can tell meself—only I know God (praise be till Him!) was guidin' me steps."
Poor Norah, when she recovered sufficiently from the shock of both the stranger's appearance, and his story, warmed him a skillet of milk, and literally insisted on pouring it down the poor fellow's throat when it must have felt like so much molten lead. But Norah would hear of no remonstrance, and Shemishin, equally well-intentioned, stood by and held the victim.
Neil a-Mughan survived. Then Norah turned Patrick Burns's only sons Charlie and Ned out of the chimney-corner in which they squatted, and stuck Neil into it—"till the hait gets in about yer heart," she said, "and dhrives all the sleet out of yer bones." She put on what she called "a pitcher of tay," for him, then buttered several large fadges of oaten bread, and boiled four eggs hard, and gave all to him in the corner.
Neil felt a new man as he got around these; and by sympathy our spirits got higher, too, and we felt in the mood to hear Shemishin (than whom there were few better fitted to do it) give us the story of Willie-the-Wisp, and the reason for his wanderings, and his evil tricks upon travellers:—
In the grand old times, long, long ago, there was wanst a blacksmith, and his name was Willie—and he was notorious over all Ireland for the dhrinkin' sportin' way he spent all of his life—and it was often and often prophesied for him that he'd never come till a good ending. He had come of good family, and besides his thrade—which was in them days, a profession for a gentleman—his people had left to him great properties both in houses and in lands. But all these properties Willie very soon dhrunk and sported away,—and all melted like snow in summer. When it come to that he had only his trade, Willie had purty hard times of it; for he didn't want to work, and he didn't care to starve,—and he found it purtikilarly hard to have no money to sport and spend, as he was used to do. He worked as little as he could, but he wanted as much as ever; so things went on from bad to worse, and his chances of thrade even was laivin' him, for no man could be sartin whether he'd oblige them or refuse them (accordingly as the mood was on him) when they'd bring a horse to shoe, or a plough to mend. And at long and at last wan mornin' that he had got no breakfast, bekase he had neither money nor means, he was standin' leanin' against his own forge doore, with his heart in his boots, when what should come up the road but a poor miserable lookin' old fella with a pair of broken pot-hooks in his hand and, "Good man," says he to Willie, "would ye mind doin' a little job for me, and mendin' these pot-hooks?" Willie was in ill-humour for workin'; but with all his faults he had always a soft spot for the poor somewhere or other in his heart. So when he looks at the little ragged man and his broken pot-hooks for a minute, he says, "Step inside," an' takin' the pieces out of the old man's hand, he blew up the fire, an' very soon made the pot-hooks all right again. "How much for that?" says the wee old man. But Willie was mad with him for mentionin' a charge. "Well thanky, thanky," says the wee fella, "It's little money I'd have to offer ye anyhow. But since ye are so kind-hearted I'll not laive ye without givin' ye some reward. Ax me," says he, "for any three requests ye like—barrin' money or money's worth, an' I'll give them to ye." Willie at wanst seen that he was dailin' with a fairy. "Well," says Willie, "there's a lot of lazy loungers comes about me house an' forge, an' annoy me tarribly throwin' me sledge, an' sittin' themselves down in me armchair, an' sometimes even bein' so dishonest as to pick the very money out of me purse—when there's any in it. So I wish," says Willie, "first that anywan ever takes up that sledge cannot laive it down again without I let them; and I wish anywan sits down in my armchair mayn't be able to rise from it, till I allow them; and I wish that once a piece of money goes into my purse, it can't get out again till I take it out." "Yer wishes is granted, Willie," says the wee old man, "an' I'm sorry ye didn't wish for health, happiness, and Heaven," and he went away.
Then Willie was standin' leanin' in his forge-doore again ruminatin' over it all, and feelin' far more down-hearted than afore, when all at wanst he hears the noise of hoofs, and up there rides a grand gentleman entirely mounted on a great black charger. And "Helloa, Willie," says he, "what are ye so down in the mouth about this mornin'? Ye look as lorn as a March graveyard." "Small wonder I would," says Willie, says he. "And if you had the same raison it's not such a spruce jaunty lookin' gentleman you'd be this mornin'." "I'm mortial sorry for ye Willie," says the gentleman, "Can I help ye?" "I dar'say ye could; but I don't expect ye would," says Willie. "Don't be so sartin of that," says the gentleman—"What is it ye need?" "Money," says Willie, "an' plenty of it." "How much of it?" says the gentleman. "Och, a roomful," says Willie that way, careless. "Well, a roomful," says the gentleman, says he, "you'll have,—on wan condition." "And what is the condition?" says Willie, says he, brightenin' up. "It's this," says the gentleman, "that you'll consent to give yerself to me and come with me in seven years and a day from now." At this Willie's eye went down and caught sight of one of the gentleman's feet an' he seen it was cloven. "Phew!" says Willie, says he, "is that how the hare sits?" "It's a grand offer," says the gentleman. "Just this minute ye were plannin' how ye'd do away with yerself. It's cowl' comfort to go out of the wurrl' on a hungry belly. Here ye have the offer of a roomful of money, an' a whole year to spend and sport it. Think of all the fun ye'd get out of a roomful of money in twelvemonths and a day!" "Thrue for ye," says Willie: "it's a bargain."
Without another word then, the Devil filled with goold the biggest room in Willie's house. "And now," says he, "good-bye, and be ready for me in seven years and a day from now." "I'll be ready," says Willie.
Willie had a gay and a rollickin' time and no mistake, afther that, for the seven years and a day. He made the money spin, as it was never afore known to spin in Ireland. He come to be known all over the country as the greatest sporter and spender of the day. He kept race horses, and steeple-chase horses, carriages and coaches—and everything was thrapped out in solid goold. He built castles that had a window for every day of the year—and entertained Kings in them. And bards and chiefs were as plentiful about them as rats. The fame of the great rich blacksmith spread over the known wurrl' of them days, and great distinguished tourists and genthry of all descriptions come flockin' from all arts and parts to see him, and to receive his hospitality—bekase he kept open house for all comers, and sarvints to wait on them, and coaches and coach-horses to dhrive them.
But for all his wealth, Willie couldn't stop Time from runnin'. And at long and at last the seven years and a day's sparin's was up, an' as Willie was wan day sittin' down to a grand dinner entirely among Kings and Counts an' many l'arned people, and people of high degree, the door of the great dinin' hall opened, and a tall gentleman walked in. Willie looked up and at the first glint he remembered him. "Good morra, Willie," says the stranger. "I suppose you know me, and are ready for me." "Good-morra and good luck," says Willie, not a thrifle mismoved—"Yis, I know you, and I'm ready for ye—as soon as I get through with dinner (it would be bad manners to laive me guests at table) an' make a set of goold shoes that I've promised the king of Prooshia there below for his horse—let me inthroduce you to the King.—King," says Willie to the King, "this is"—"A frien'," says the Devil. "—A frien'," says Willie. An' the King an' the Devil bowed, the Devil remarkin' he hoped for the pleasure of a further acquaintance with him some day. He told Willie not to hurry, an' took his place at the table, and a right hearty dinner, and then went with Willie to the forge, to see him turn out the goold shoes. "Here," says Willie, says he, when he was baitin' these out on the anvil, "make yerself useful, and help me through till I be off with ye"—handin' him a sledge. The Devil took hold of the sledge with both hands and begun baitin'; but the sarra wan of him could let it go when he wanted to, for the sledge stuck to his hands like grim daith. "Come," says Willie, says he, "old man, are ye ready for the road?" "Take away this sledge out of me hands," says the Devil. "I don't recall," says Willie, "that there's anything about that in my bargain. I'm afeard ye'll have to stick to the sledge. Come along," says he, "I'm ready." "Och, ye scoundhril," says the Devil, says he, and he dancin' all over the place, with all Willie's guests and friends standin' by brakin' their hearts laughin' at him. "Take away this sledge," says he, at long and at last, "and I'll give ye another seven years' and a day's sparin's." So, at that Willie tuk from him the sledge, and the Devil went off in mighty anger.
It was like new life to Willie startin' the next tarm. And he went at these seven years of fun and frolic, like a man at a day's work. And if the seven years afore had been a merry seven, these seven were seven times as merry. His house never emptied, and day or night the fun and carousin' never wanst ceased in it. There come more throops and bands, and Kings and Queens with all their body-sarvints than ever went to visit Solomon in all his glory. His name and fame was sounded in the utthermost ends of the earth; and in all the wurrl' again there wasn't so great a man as Willie.
But at long and at last, again, these seven years and a day passed, too. And on the very day when they were up, just as Willie, again, was sittin' down to table in the middle of Kings and Queens, and great foreign Counts, the doore of the dinin' hall opened and in steps no other than Willie's frien'. "Good morra, Willie," says he, with an ugly smile on his face as much as to say "I'm goin' to get even with ye at last, boy-o." "Good-morra, and good luck," says Willie, not the laist thrifle mismoved, seemin'ly. "Willie," says he, "I hope you're ready to come with me?" "I am," says Willie—"Butler," says Willie, "bring forrid that large chair there behind you and set it here at my right hand for this gentleman, and bring him in a large plate of the best ye can find in the pot—he's going to do us the honor of pickin' a bone with us." "Thanky, thanky," says the Devil, says he, seatin' himself, and tacklin' the dinner with a rale hearty appetite.
But lo, when all had finished their dinners, and Willie had sayed grace and stood up, the Devil he couldn't rise at all, at all, for he was stuck as fast to the chair as if he had been waxed to it. "I'm ready for the road now, old man," says Willie,—"are you?" "Oh, ye notorious villain," says the Devil, "this is a purty mane thrick to play on a man in your own house, and at your own table, moreover. Relaise me from this chair," says he. "I don't remember that there was anything about that in my bargain," says Willie. The Devil he wriggled and wriggled, and screwed and twisted himself, till all the gentlemen and ladies present went into stitches with the laughin'. And then, says he, "Relaise me out of this chair and I'll give ye seven years and a day more." "Done," says Willie; and he relaised him, and let him go off, black in the countenance with anger and wrath.
Willie's pile of money was by no means as big as what it used to be, but there was an odious pile of it yet. And so for the next seven years, Willie run the same rigs he had done afore; only, if anything, he went it ten times faster and furiouser, and his house was the resort for ten times as many princes and people from the very corners of the earth itself. And the fun was ten times as big, and the aitin' and dhrinkin' ten times as great and grand. And the likes of it never had been seen afore nor never will be seen again.
But the best of things must some time or other come till an end. And so it seemed with Willie; for these years passed, too. And the day the devil was due, come; and on that day, just as afore, Willie, he was sittin' down till the table to dinner, along with all his great distinguished guests, when the doore of the dinin' room opens, and in walks me brave Devil again. "Good morra, Willie," says he, with the same old vicious smile. "Good morra and good luck," says Willie, as little as ever mismoved, "won't ye sit down and have a pick of dinner with us?" "Not me," says the Devil. "You fooled me twicet, but ye'll never have it to say that ye fooled me the third time. Come along," says he. "That's mighty curt," says Willie. "It's your desarts," says the Devil. "Lay down the knife and fork now, and throt." And Willie had there and then to say good-bye to his guests, an' beg their pardon for this hasty departure, an' walk off, hungry as he was, with the Devil.
It was in the heat of summer, and the roads was dhry and dusty, and the sun burnin' down on top of the two thravellers. After they'd been some hours walkin' Willie complained he was mighty thirsty. "Well," says the Devil, says he, the first inn we come till, I'll let ye go in and have a dhrink." Says Willie, "But I haven't got a stiver on me, me purse is as emp'y as Micky Meehan's male-chist." "Neither have I a stiver," says the Devil. "What'll ye do?" "Why, as for that," says Willie, "You're such a nice obligin' fella that I know ye'll oblige me in this. All you've got to do is to turn yourself until a goold piece in my purse whilst I buy a thrait with ye." "I'll do that, with a heart and a half," says the Devil. And the first inn they come up till, the Devil thransformed himself intil a goold piece in Willie's purse, and Willie closed the purse on him. Then straight back home with him Willie marched and into his forge. He laid the purse down on the anvil, and gettin' two other sthrong lumps of fellas along with himself, he put sledges in their hands, and told them fire away and not spare themselves. So, as heavy and fast as the three of them could, they rained the blows down upon the purse on the anvil; and every blow come down, the Devil he yelled. And they struck away, and he yelled away; and he cried out and begged of Willie to let him out, and he'd give him more sparin's. And when Willie got all the fun himself and his friends needed for wan day, out of him, Willie released him from the purse, on his promisin' to give him seven years and a day more.
But poor Willie's money, which had been goin' all this time like corn in a sieve, was now run purty low. For six of the seven years he had as gay a time and as merry as ever afore—but the money run out with the sixth year, and poor Willie had no means of makin' more—for he'd sooner starve than work. His friends disappeared, too, with the money; and him that thought he could count friends be the thousand couldn't find as much as one single one, now, on lookin' round him. The seventh year, then, was a purty hard one with Willie; an' he was no ways sorry to find the end of it comin', and with it the Devil—for he had got heart-sick, sore, and tired, of the wurrl'.
And when at the end of the seventh year and a day the Devil come again he found Willie, with the stick in his fist waitin' him. And Willie started along with him this time with a heart and a half. And on ahead the both of them thrudged and thravelled for many a weary, dhreary mile, for further nor I could tell you, and twicet further nor you could tell me, till at long at last they reached their journey's end, and the Devil knocked on the gates of Hell, and had both of them admitted in.
But behold you, Willie wasn't long in here till he tired of it, and wished he was free again. So he set about makin' himself as bothersome as he could, and yocked a row with everybody in it, till they could stand him no longer, and put in a petition to the Devil to have him put out of here, bekase there'd never be no more comfort whilst he'd be let remain. And the Devil himself, too, found him so throublesome that he was only too glad to give in, and to ax the request of Willie that he'd go quietly, and laive them in paice. But Willie was conthrary, as always he had been, and he now refused to go till they had to join and put him out by main force. And when they got him out, and the gates slammed on him, Willie kicked up a racket outside, and pegged on the gates for all he was worth, and wouldn't go away till they'd consent to hand him out a torch, that he might see his way by. So the Devil, through the bars of the gate, handed out till him the torch, and told him to begone back to the wurrl' he come from, and spend his time ever afther in leadin' good people asthray.
Back Willie come, and from that day to this, he has continued wandherin' afore him, over hill and dale, himself and his torch; and it's his great delight to atthract the attention of good people that have lost their way at night, and lead them into marshes, and bogs, and swamps, where they get stuck, and sunk, and lost.
And from that day to this, owin' to the torch or wisp he carries in his hand, he has been called Willie-the-Wisp. And on our friend Neil here to-night he had evil intentions; but, as Neil remarked, he had some poor body's prayer on him, and God reached till him a helpin' hand, and led him out of the bog.
"Thank God!" we all said fervently.
And Neil said: "Thanks be to Him!"