Story of the Raven by Edmund Leamy

When I was a lad of about nineteen summers, proceeded Brother Mailcoba, I happened to be on a visit to my uncle, who was a Brughfer, and whose house was on the road leading from Baile atha Cliath (Dublin) to Tara. My uncle, who was a widower, had met with a serious accident, and he was laid up in the house of the leech (physician) who lived about a quarter of a mile away, and in his absence the duty of attending to the travellers who might seek the hospitality of the Brugh fell on me.

The duty had been light enough for many days, for, though the great Fair of Tara was close at hand, the weather was most unseasonable. The heavy rains had beaten the ripening corn to the ground, and the road was sodden, and it seemed at times as if all the winds had been let loose and met in conflict, snapping in their struggle the leafy trees that fell with a crash on hill and in valley, and their outstretched limbs, cumbering the roads, made them almost impassable for man or beast. During those days of rain and storm the sun never showed himself, and the night came almost as quickly as in the wintertide, and men said that the seasons had changed, and that ruin threatened the land. Yet no one knew why it should be so, for the king was good and generous, and while he maintained his own dignity, and insisted on his dues, his hand was open as the doors of his hospitality, and to no man, simple or gentle, was justice denied.

Night after night, when the day was drawn into the mouth of darkness, I kindled the light on the lawn to guide the wayfarers who might seek food and shelter, but night after night passed over, and no one came.

At length there was a day when the rain no longer fell, and the winds, which had gone back to the hollows of the mountains, no longer blustered. But sullen clouds covered the sky, and the night, as chill as if the breath of winter was on it, crept early under them. I had lit the light upon the lawn, and had come in and closed the door, and was sitting facing the fire of pine logs that smouldered upon the hearth. The servants of the Brugh were in the outhouses attending to cattle, or discharging other duties, and I was quite alone, for even the raven, who was my usual companion, was out in the barn watching the milking of the cows. I was thinking of going up to the house of the leech to inquire for my uncle, when, suddenly, I heard the sound of chariot wheels coming up the beaten road to the door of the Brugh. I had hardly opened the door when I saw in the light cast from the “candle in the candlestick” two horses covered with foam, and I distinguished in the seat of the chariot two figures muffled up against the weather; but I had no difficulty in recognising one as that of a lady.

“The blessing of God be on you,” said the man.

“God and Mary be with you,” I replied, “and cead mile failte.”

The servants had heard the chariot approaching, and were ready to take the horses to the stable as the guests stepped from the car. The first offices of hospitality having been discharged, and father and daughter, for such they were, having refreshed themselves from the fatigues of their journey, and partaken of the fare that had soon been set before them, took their places by the fire. The man was rather old, and wore the dress of a chief; he and his daughter were going to the great fair at Tara to witness the games and contests. The maiden was the fairest I had ever seen, her face as beautiful as a flower, and when she lifted, as she did occasionally, her long, dark lashes from her eyes, they were as stars shining in a dark pool in the woodland.

“I fear, Brother Mailcoba,” said the Abbot, “that thou wert over-given to the vanities of this world at that time. The beauties you speak of are transient, and perish.”

“So shall the stars perish, Father, that to the brief life of man seem eternal; but, nevertheless, we may admire their lustre in the dusk of the summer night, and then I was young, and all that was beautiful seemed to me to be good.”

“Would it were so,” said the Abbot, “but proceed with your story.”

We had not been long seated together, continued Brother Mailcoba, when I heard a halting step coming towards the door, and as I turned my ear I caught the twang of chords.

“It is a harper who comes,” said the lady in a sweet, low voice that was almost timid. You will forgive me, Father, for saying that I thought her voice was as musical as any harp ever sounded.

“You were very young then, brother,” replied the Abbot with a smile. “And remembering your youth, we forgive you.”

We gave the harper his meed of greeting, continued Brother Mailcoba. He was lame, and old, and seemingly weak of sight, but the lady laid on his arm her hand, that was as soft and as white as a white cloud against a blue sky——

“Brother, brother,” put in the Abbot with a mild deprecatory gesture.

And she brought him towards her, continued Brother Mailcoba, not heeding the interruption, and made him take the seat beside hers.

When I opened the door to admit the harper, the raven, who had finished his self-imposed task in the cowhouse, hopped in and took up his perch on the rafter, and eyed the company in the most critical manner. He had only one eye, having lost the other in a scrimmage with one of the cats, but this, instead of detracting from, rather added to, the solemnity of his gaze. At the harper’s heels, sniffing in the friendliest way, came the house dog, Bran, who stretched himself before the fire.

The harper made only a very slight repast, and when it was finished the lady begged him to soothe the night with song. He, nothing loth, proceeded to comply, and, after coaxing the strings to follow him, began to sing of the wooing of Lady Eimer by Cuchullin. But suddenly the old man, the maiden’s father, started like one aroused from sleep.

“Have you no other song,” he cried, “no song of battle, of burning, or of voyages across the seas, that tell how heroes fight and fall? Sing of Cuchullin when he stood alone against the hosts of Connaught in the battle armour drest, or when he met Ferdiah at the ford, but waste not your time and ours with the story of his love-sick fits.”

The harper paused, the maiden’s lashes hid her eyes, and a blush like that which follows the grey light of the dawn stole to her cheeks. The harper was about to make reply when the raven, from the rafter, and behind where we were sitting, croaked, “Grob! grob!

“A soldier is coming,” said the old harper.

I noticed that the maiden cast a furtive glance at the door, which I hastened to open, expecting, of course, to see a soldier, for the raven never lied.

“But was not that a Druidic superstition, and unworthy of the credence of a Christian?” queried the Abbot.

“May be so, father,” replied Brother Mailcoba, “but they say the ravens are very knowledgeable birds, and in my boyhood I was taught to believe in them, and so was the harper.”

“But you were deceived on this occasion,” said the Abbot.

“I thought so,” said Brother Mailcoba, “when, as I opened the door a monk entered with his robe and cowl, but still the raven croaked ‘grob! grob!’”

After the usual salutations the newcomer sat down to the table and he ate like as one who had long fasted. I mention this only because it seemed to justify the character in which he presented himself, but the raven kept fidgeting on the rafter, and fixing his single eye on the new guest, croaked “grob! grob!” in a fretful, almost angry voice.

When his repast was finished, the monk took a seat on a bench near the harper, but, so that he had a full view of the lady, although he was partly concealed from her father. His cowl almost concealed his face, but what was visible of it suggested youth and comeliness. It was natural, perhaps, that he should excite the curiosity of the maiden, but I must confess I was surprised to find her lashes lifting so frequently and her eyes turning towards him, and once or twice I thought those of the monk responded to the questioning glances of the maiden.

“I fear thou wert uncharitable, Brother Mailcoba,” said the Abbot.

“Not so, father, as the event proved.” By this time the maiden’s father, overcome by the weary journey and the hospitality, had fallen into a slumber. The harper, too, who was hurt by the rebuff which he had received, seemed rather somnolent, and he sat back against the couch with eyes almost closed, but his fingers strayed across his harp as if he were playing in his sleep, and the numbers stole out clearly if faintly, and if the spirit of music ever come and move the hand of the harper it must have led his across the strings that night. I know not how the others felt, indeed, I forgot their existence for the time. I was under a spell. It seemed to me as if my body was inert, and as if my listening soul was borne on sounds that would not stay, but would steal out like a bird from an opened cage seeking on happy wings the lustrous woodland. Suddenly I was brought to myself by the snarl of the hound and the hoarse voice of the raven croaking.

Carna, carna! Grob, grob! Coin, coin!

“There are wolves about,” cried the harper, starting up. “Listen to the raven.”[1]

The hound kept on snarling as the raven croaked, but he made no move from the fire. I thought I heard a light, quick step on the path, but the hounds around the sheepfold were baying so furiously that I was not sure. However, I went to the door, and as I was about to open it, it was struck rapidly as if by one in haste. When I had drawn it half back, a tall, athletic looking man with a huge cloak wrapped about him almost rushed in. He was scant of breath, as if he had been running, and I noticed that his cloak was torn in several places. This he quickly cast off, and darting a glance around him from restless and glittering eyes took his seat.

I noticed the harper eyeing him curiously, and I thought I saw the maiden shrink. The monk, too, seemed more curious than was hospitable or polite. I gave the stranger the usual welcome, but his response was brief, and so was his salutation to the other guests, and their replies, and indeed, during the time that I was busying myself in getting him some refreshment, the silence of the Brugh was broken only by the croaking of the raven, “Carna! carna! Coin! coin!” and the snarls and smothered yelp of Bran. I was quite puzzled by the raven. First he announced a soldier instead of a cleric, and secondly, at his call of “wolves! wolves!” which had no longer any meaning, for if there were wolves abroad they must have been scared away by the watchdogs, who ceased barking as I closed the door after admitting the new guest.

I had seen many a man eating in my time, but never saw I one who ate so ravenously. I replenished his platter several times before his hunger was satisfied, and indeed I was kept so busy that I had not time to pay attention to the other guests. When at length I was able to do so I noticed the old chief was still slumbering, and that the harper had changed places with the monk, and the latter was sitting beside, or rather close to the maiden, and indeed I thought I saw him drawing his arm hastily away.

“I fear, brother, your story is far from edifying,” said the Abbot.

“Well, maybe I was wrong,” continued Brother Mailcoba, “and perhaps it was the glow from the pine logs that caused the maiden’s face to look like a red rose. I think it was for the purpose of distracting my attention that the harper began to play a low, sweet melody. I recognised its first notes as those of the ‘Song of Clumber.’”

“Not that, not that!” suddenly exclaimed the last come guest fixing his glittering eyes on the harper. The vehemence of the exclamation and the harsh tones in which it was uttered caused general surprise. The stranger noticing this appeared somewhat confused, and he endeavoured to explain himself by saying—“It was too early yet for slumber, and that for his part he preferred that sleep should come to him naturally than that it should be brought by song.”

“It seems to me,” quoth the harper, sadly, “that I can please no one to night.”

“Say not so,” said the maiden softly, “and perhaps now,”—and she glanced at her sleeping parent—“you might sing us of Lady Eimer.”

The harper’s face lighted up with pleasure, and soon under the skilful fingers the harp gave out a witching strain, the accompaniment of his song. When it ended the maiden slipped a gold brooch of exquisite workmanship into his hand. Nor did he go without reward from the monk and the stranger, as I must still call the last-comer.

By this time the night was pretty far advanced, and as the travellers had stated that it was their intention to start early in the morning, I reminded them that their couches were ready. The last-comer took the hint at once, and sought the couch that was nearest to the door. The maiden and the monk seemed loth to go. The former pretended—for I fear it was but a pretence—that she was unwilling to disturb her father, but, after a while, the old man roused himself, and looked about him.

Carna, carna! Coin, coin!” croaked the raven from the rafters.

“There must be wolves at hand,” said the old chief.

A long-drawn, low growl came from Bran, as if in response.

“That can hardly be,” I said, “for the watchdogs without are silent.”

“I never knew a raven to be wrong yet,” replied the chief, “but let the shepherds look to it. I had better lie down. We must start a little after daybreak. I want to be at Tara early.”

The old man and his daughter retired, and if my eyes did not deceive me, those of the maiden rested longer on the monk as she bade him “good-night” than was altogether seemly. The harper, who was very old, also betook himself to rest, and only the monk and myself remained sitting by the fire.

“It is not likely that any more travellers will come to-night,” I said to the monk, “so I think I had better look to the lawn light, and go to bed, as I wish to be up to see the old chief and the maiden off.” And I added, “I suppose you will not start early?”

“I have not quite made up my mind on that point,” he replied, “but I think I shall also retire, as it is not fair to keep you up any longer. But let me go with you to the lawn; I should like to see what the night is doing, and what is the promise of the morrow.”

Of course, I accepted his offer. We went on to the lawn together, and when the light was supplied with fresh fuel, returned. As we were coming towards the door, the monk remarked the chariot which had brought the chief and his daughter, and that, although well constructed, it would require a powerful horse to draw it.

“There are two horses,” I answered; “splendid animals, that could fly away with it. Perhaps, I had better look at them, to see if they are all right,” and I went towards the stable.

“They are, indeed, splendid animals,” said the monk, who looked at them with a critical eye, as he took the candle from my hand that he might view them better, and he evinced an interest in, and a knowledge of, horseflesh that surprised me not a little, seeing that he was a poor monk, that was forced to make his journeys on foot. After bolting the stable door we returned to the house, and shortly after the monk, who refused to join me in a beaker of mead, although I urged he would sleep all the better for it, went to his couch, and when I had finished my beaker, I followed his example, and was soon fast asleep.

I slept soundly, as was my wont, but at daybreak I was awakened by the frantic yelping of the hounds, while the raven, flapping his wings in wild shouts of excitement, croaked “Grob grob! Carna, carna! Coin! coin!” I felt the cold air of the morning on my face, and the grey light came through the open door. I leaped from my couch, and looked about me. The harper was sound asleep, so also was the old chief, but the couch which the maiden had occupied was vacant, as was that of the monk, and the stranger was nowhere to be seen.

I rushed out, the stable door was open, and the chariot had disappeared. In the stable was a monk’s robe and cowl. The hounds were still yelping in the distance, but not frantically as at first, and I pushed on towards them. I met them returning with bloody mouths, and in a few seconds one of the shepherds followed with a huge coat, torn almost to tatters, and stained with blood. It was the remains of the great coat which the stranger had worn the night before!

“And the stranger?” asked the Abbot.

“The bloody mouths of the hounds supplied the answer, at least so said the harper, when I related to him what had happened. The stranger was a man wolf, who was allowed to assume human form by night, but had to take that of the wolf by day.[2] He must have slept till daybreak, and not being able to escape from the neighbourhood of the Brugh in human shape, fell a prey to the hounds.”

“And what of the monk?” queried the Abbot.

“He was no more a monk than I was. When I related what had happened to the old chief, he tore his hair, and declared that his daughter had been carried off by a soldier with no more land or possession than would fit on the edge of his sword. He had persistently wooed the maiden, but had been rejected by the father, so that the story of Lady Eimer had a special significance for her. The father threatened to have vengeance; he would go to Tara and see the High King, and carry his complaints to him. He begged for the loan of a chariot, which, of course, I supplied him with, and he set off for Tara. A few days after the great fair began, and I went to it. I hardly think that the chief carried out his threat, or if he complained to the king the king must have induced him to make the best of it, for as I was going round the course, on the day of the chariot race, I saw seated in the Queen’s pavilion, amongst the ladies of the court, the maiden who had sought the hospitality of the Brugh, but who was now the wife of a gallant soldier, and, I must confess, that I shared her exultation when, in the last rush home, the chariot that was guided by her soldier husband swept past the winning post, amidst the thunderous plaudits of the multitude of the men of Erinn. So you see, Father, the raven was right after all.”

 Our Celtic ancestors believed that the raven was gifted with the power, among others, of describing the quality and character of any person or animal approaching the house. If a soldier is coming it cries “grob, grob”; if a layman, “bacach, bacach”; if one in holy orders, “gradh, gradh!” etc; if wolves, as above.
 This belief was common in the old days in Ireland, and wolf stories still survive in the Celtic romances which have come down to us.