The Good Woman - Fairy Legends of Ireland

N a pleasant and not unpicturesque valley of the White Knight's Country, at the foot of the Galtee mountains, lived Larry Dodd and his wife Nancy. They rented a cabin and a few acres of land, which they cultivated with great care, and its crops rewarded their industry. They were independent, and respected by their neighbours; they loved each other in a marriageable sort of way, and few couples had altogether more the appearance of comfort about them.

Larry was a hard-working, and, occasionally, a hard-drinking, Dutch-built, little man, with a fiddle head and a round stern; a steady-going straightforward fellow, barring when he carried too much whisky, which, it must be confessed, might occasionally prevent his walking the chalked line with perfect philomathical accuracy. He had a moist, ruddy countenance, rather inclined to an expression of gravity, and particularly so in the morning; but, taken all together, he was generally looked upon as a marvellously proper person, notwithstanding he had, every day in the year, a sort of unholy dew upon his face, even in the coldest weather, which gave rise to a supposition (amongst censorious persons, of course), that Larry was apt to indulge in strong and frequent potations. However, all men of talents have their faults—indeed, who is without them?—and as Larry, setting aside his domestic virtues and skill in farming, was decidedly the most distinguished breaker of horses for forty miles round, he must be in some degree excused, considering the inducements of "the stirrup cup," and the fox-hunting society in which he mixed, if he had also been the greatest drunkard in the country—but in truth this was not the case.

Larry was a man of mixed habits, as well in his mode of life and his drink, as in his costume. His dress accorded well with his character—a sort of half-and-half between farmer and horse-jockey. He wore a blue coat of coarse cloth, with short skirts and a stand-up collar; his waistcoat was red, and his lower habiliments were made of leather, which in course of time had shrunk so much that they fitted like a second skin, and long use had absorbed their moisture to such a degree that they made a strange sort of crackling noise as he walked along. A hat covered with oil-skin; a cutting-whip, all worn and jagged at the end; a pair of second-hand, or to speak more correctly, second-footed greasy top-boots, that seemed never to have imbibed a refreshing draught of Warren's blacking of matchless lustre! and one spur without a rowel, completed the everyday dress of Larry Dodd.

Thus equipped was Larry returning from Cashel mounted on a rough-coated and wall-eyed nag, though, notwithstanding these and a few other trifling blemishes, a well-built animal; having just purchased the said nag, with a fancy that he could make his own money again of his bargain, and may be turn an odd penny more by it, at the ensuing Kildorrery fair. Well pleased with himself, he trotted fair and easy along the road in the delicious and lingering twilight of a lovely June evening, thinking of nothing at all, only whistling, and wondering would horses always be so low "If they go at this rate," said he to himself, "for half nothing, and that paid in butter buyer's notes, who would be the fool to walk?" This very thought, indeed, was passing in his mind, when his attention was roused by a woman pacing quickly by the side of his horse, and hurrying on, as if endeavouring to reach her destination before the night closed in. Her figure, considering the long strides she took, appeared to be under the common size—rather of the dumpy order; but further, as to whether the damsel was young or old, fair or brown, pretty or ugly, Larry could form no precise notion, from her wearing a large cloak (the usual garb of the female Irish peasant), the hood of which was turned up, and completely concealed every feature.

Enveloped in this mass of dark and concealing drapery, the strange woman, without much exertion, contrived to keep up with Larry Dodd's steed for some time, when his master very civilly offered her a lift behind him, as far as he was going her way. "Civility begets civility," they say; however, he received no answer; and thinking that the lady's silence proceeded only from bashfulness, like a man of true gallantry, not a word more said Larry, until he pulled up by the side of a gap and then says he, "Ma colleen beg (my little girl), just jump up behind me without a word more, though never a one have you spoke, and I'll take you safe and sound through the lonesome bit of road that is before us."

She jumped at the offer, sure enough, and up with her on the back of the horse as light as a feather. In an instant there she was seated up behind Larry, with her hand and arm buckled round his waist, holding on.

"I hope you're comfortable there, my dear," said Larry, in his own good-humoured way; but there was no answer; and on they went—trot, trot, trot— along the road; and all was so still and so quiet that you might have heard the sound of the hoofs on the limestone a mile off: for that matter there was nothing else to hear except the moaning of a distant stream, that kept up a continual cronane (a monotonous song), like a nurse hushoing. Larry, who had a keen ear, did not, however, require so profound a silence to detect the click of one of the shoes. " 'Tis only loose the shoe is," said he to his companion, as they were just entering on the lonesome bit of road of which he had before spoken. Some old trees with huge trunks, all covered, and irregular branches festooned with ivy, grew over a dark pool of water, which had been formed as a drinking-place for cattle; and in the distance was seen the majestic head of Galtee-more. Here the horse, as if in grateful recognition, made a halt; and Larry, not knowing what vicious tricks his new purchase might have, and unwilling that through any odd chance the young woman should get spilt in the water, dismounted, thinking to lead the horse quietly by the pool.

"By the piper's luck, that always found what he wanted," said Larry, recollecting himself, "I've a nail in my pocket: 'tis not the first time I've put on a shoe, and may be it won't be the last; for here is no want of paving-stones to make hammers in plenty."

No sooner was Larry off than off with a spring came the young woman just at his side. Her feet touched the ground without making the least noise in life, and away she bounded like an ill-mannered wench, as she was, without saying "by your leave," or no manner what else. She seemed to glide rather than run, not along the road, but across a field, up towards the old ivy-covered walls of Kilnaslattery church—and a pretty church it was.

"Not so fast, if you please, young woman—not so fast," cried Larry, calling after; but away she ran, and Larry followed, his leathern garment, already described, crack, crick, crackling at every step he took. "Where's my wages?" said Larry: "Thorum pog, ma colleen oge (give me a kiss, my young girl), sure I've earned a kiss from your pair of pretty lips— and I'll have it too!" But she went on faster and faster, regardless of these and other flattering speeches from her pursuer; till at last she came to the churchyard wall, and then over with her in an instant.

"Well, she's a mighty smart creature anyhow. To be sure, how neat she steps upon her pasterns! Did any one ever see the like of that before; but I'll not be baulked by any woman that ever wore a head, or any ditch either," exclaimed Larry, as with a desperate bound he vaulted, scrambled, and tumbled over the wall into the churchyard. Up he got from the elastic sod of a newly-made grave in which Tade Leary that morning was buried—rest his soul!—and on went Larry, stumbling over head-stones and foot-stones, over old graves and new graves, pieces of coffins, and the skulls and bones of dead men—the Lord save us!—that were scattered about there as plenty as paving-stones; floundering amidst great over-grown dock-leaves and brambles that, with their long prickly arms, tangled round his limbs, and held him back with a fearful grasp. Meantime the merry wench in the cloak moved through all these obstructions as evenly and as gaily as if the churchyard, crowded up as it was with graves and gravestones (for people came to be buried there from far and near), had been the floor of a dancing-room. Round and round the walls of the old church she went. "I'll just wait," said Larry, seeing this, and thinking it all nothing but a trick to frighten him; "when she comes round again, if I don't take the kiss, I won't, that's all, and here she is!" Larry Dodd sprung forward with open arms, and clasped in them—a woman, it is true, but without any lips to kiss, by reason of her having no head!

"Murder! " cried he. "Well, that accounts for her not speaking." Having uttered these words, Larry himself became dumb with fear and astonishment; his blood seemed turned to ice, and a dizziness came over him; and, staggering like a drunken man, he rolled against the broken window of the ruin, horrified at the conviction that he had actually held a Dullahan in his embrace!

When he recovered to something like a feeling of consciousness he slowly opened his eyes, and then, indeed, a scene of wonder burst upon him. In the midst of the ruin stood an old wheel of torture, ornamented with heads, like Cork gaol when the heads of Murty Sullivan and other gentlemen were stuck upon it. This was plainly visible in the strange light which spread itself around. It was fearful to behold, yet Larry could not choose but look, for his limbs were powerless through the wonder and the fear. Useless as it was, he would have called for help, but his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth, and not one word could he say. In short, there was Larry gazing through a shattered window of the old church, with eyes bleared and almost starting from their sockets; his breast rested on the thickness of the wall, over which, on one side, his head and out-stretched neck projected, and on the other, although one toe touched the ground, it derived no support from it: terror, as it were, kept him balanced. Strange noises assailed his ears, until at last they tingled painfully to the sharp clatter of little bells, which kept up a continued ding—ding—ding—ding: marrowless bones rattled and clanked, and the deep and solemn sound of a great bell came booming on the night wind.

'Twas a spectre rung

That bell when it swung—


And the chain it squeaked,

And the pulley creaked,


And with every roll

Of the deep death toll,


The hollow vault rang

As the clapper went bang,


It was strange music to dance by; nevertheless, moving to it, round and round the wheel set with skulls, were well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, and soldiers and sailors, and priests and publicans, and jockeys and jennys, but all without their heads. Some poor skeletons, whose bleached bones were ill covered by moth-eaten palls, and who were not admitted into the ring, amused themselves by bowling their brainless noddles at one another, which seemed to enjoy the sport beyond measure.

Larry did not know what to think; his brains were all in a mist, and losing the balance which he had so long maintained, he fell head-foremost into the midst of the company of Dullahans.

"I'm done for and lost for ever," roared Larry, with his heels turned towards the stars, and souse down he came.

"Welcome, Larry Dodd, welcome," cried every nead, bobbing up and down in the air. "A drink for Larry Dodd," shouted they, as with one voice, that quavered like a shake on the bagpipes. No sooner said than done, for a player at heads, catching his own as it was bowled at him, for fear of its going astray, jumped up, put the head, without a word, under his left arm, and, with the right stretched out, presented a brimming cup to Larry, who, to show his manners, drank it off like a man.

" 'Tis capital stuff," he would have said, which surely it was, but he got no further than cap, when decapitated was he, and his head began dancing over his shoulders like those of the rest of the party. Larry, however, was not the first man who lost his head through the temptation of looking at the bottom of a brimming cup. Nothing more did he remember clearly, for it seems body and head being parted is not very favourable to thought, but a great hurry-scurry with the noise of carriages and the cracking of whips.

When his senses returned, his first act was to put up his hand to where his head formerly grew, and to his great joy there he found it still. He then shook it gently, but his head remained firm enough, and somewhat assured at this, he proceeded to open his eyes and look around him. It was broad daylight, and in the old church of Kilnaslattery he found himself lying, with that head, the loss of which he had anticipated, quietly resting, poor youth, "upon the lap of earth." Could it have been an ugly dream? "Oh no," said Larry, "a dream could never have brought me here, stretched on the flat of my back, with that death's head and cross marrow-bones fore-nenting me on the fine old tombstone there that was faced by Pat Kearney of Kilcrea. But where is the horse?" He got up slowly, every joint aching with pain from the bruises he had received, and went to the pool of water, but no horse was there. " 'Tis home I must go," said Larry, with a rueful countenance; "but how will I face Nancy? what will I tell her about the horse, and the seven I O U's that he cost me? 'Tis them Dullahans that have made their own of him from me—the horse-stealing robbers of the world, that have no fear of the gallows! but what's gone is gone, that's a clear case!" So saying, he turned his steps homeward, and arrived at his cabin about noon, without encountering any further adventures. There he found Nancy, who, as he expected, looked as black as a thundercloud at him for being out all night. She listened to the marvellous relation which he gave with exclamations of astonishment, and, when he had concluded, of grief, at the loss of the horse that he had paid for like an honest man in I O U's, three of which she knew to be as good as gold.

"But what took you up to the old church at all out of the road, and at that time of the night, Larry?" inquired his wife.

Larry looked like a criminal for whom there was no reprieve; he scratched his head for an excuse, but not one could he muster up, so he knew not what to say.

"Oh! Larry, Larry," muttered Nancy, after waiting some time for his answer, her jealous fears during the pause rising like barm; " 'tis the very same way with you as with any other man—you are all alike for that matter—I've no pity for you—but confess the truth!"

Larry shuddered at the tempest which he perceived was about to break upon his devoted head. "Nancy," said he, "I do confess;—it was a young woman without any head that——"

His wife heard no more. "A woman I knew it was," cried she; "but a woman without a head, Larry!—well, it is long before Nancy Gollagher ever thought it would come to that with her!—that she would be left dissolute and alone here by her baste of a husband, for a woman without a head! O father, father! and O mother, mother! it is well you are low to-day! that you don't see this affliction and disgrace to your daughter that you reared decent and tender. O Larry, you villain, you'll be the death of your lawful wife, going after such—O—O—O—"

"Well," says Larry, putting his hands in his coat-pockets, "least said is soonest mended. Of the young woman I know no more than I do of Moll Flanders; but this I know, that a woman without a head may well be called a Good Woman, because she has no tongue!"

How this remark operated on the matrimonial dispute history does not inform us. It is, however, reported that the lady had the last word.