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The Collected Poems of Dora Sigerson Shorter/The Woman Who Went to Hell

< The Collected Poems of Dora Sigerson Shorter

THE WOMAN WHO WENT TO HELL

AN IRISH LEGEND

Young Dermod stood by his mother's side,
And he spake right stern and cold;
“Now, why do you weep and wail,” he said,
“And joy from my bride withhold?

“And why do you keen and cry,” said he,
“So loud on my marriage day?
The wedding guests they now eager wait,
All clad in their rich array.

“The priest is ready with book and stole,
And you do this grievous thing:
You keep me back from the altar rail—
My bride from her wedding ring.”

His mother she rose, and she dried her tears,
She took him by his right hand—
“The cause,” she said, "of my grief and pain
Too soon must you understand.

“Oh, one-and-twenty long years ago
I walked in your father's farm,
I broke a bough from a ripe peach-tree,
And carried it on my arm.

“My heart was light as a thistle-seed—
I had but been wed a year—
I dreamt of joy that would soon be mine—
A babe in my arms so dear.

“There came to me there a stranger man,
And these are the words he spake:
‘The fruit you carry I fain would buy,
I pray you my gold to take.’

“The fruit I carried he then did buy—
You lying beneath my heart—
I tended to him the ripe peach-bough
He tore the gold branch apart.

“He whispered then in my frightened ear
The name of the Evil One,
‘And this have I bought to-day,’ he said—
  The soul of your unborn son.

“‘The fruit you carry, which I did buy,
Will ripen before I claim;
And when the bells for his wedding ring
Again you shall hear my name.’”

Now Dermod rose from his mother's side,
And all loud and long laughed he.
He bore her down to the wedding-guests,
All sorrowful still was she.

“Now, cry no more, sweet mother,” he said,
“For you are a doleful sight
And who is there in the banquet-hall
Can claim my soul to-night?”

Then one rose up from the wedding throng.
But his face no man could see,
And he said, “Now bid your dear farewell,
For your soul belongs to me.”

Young Dermod stood like a stricken man.
His mother she swooned away;
But his love ran quick to the stranger's side.
And to him she this did say:—

“If you will let his young soul go free,
I will serve you true and well,
For seven long years to be your slave
In the bitterest place of hell.”

“Seven long years, if you be my slave,
I will let his soul go free.”
The stranger drew her then by the hand,
And into the night went he.

Seven long years did she serve him true
By the blazing gates of hell,
And on every soul that entered in
The tears of her sorrow fell.

Seven long years did she keep the place,
To open the doors accurst,
And every soul that her tear-drops knew —
It would neither burn nor thirst.

And once she let in her father dear.
And once passed her brother through,
Once came a friend she had loved full well,
Oh, bitter it was to do!

On the last day of the seven long years
She stood by her master's knee —
“A boon, a boon for the work well done
I pray that you grant to me.

“A boon, a boon, that I carry forth
What treasure my strength can bring.”
That you may do,” said the Evil One,
“And all for a little thing.

“All you can carry you may take forth
By serving me seven years more.”
Bitter she wept for the world and love.
But took her sad place by the door.

Seven long years did she serve him well
Until the last day was done,
And all the souls that she had let in,
They clung to her one by one.

And all the souls that she had let through
They clung to her dress and hair,
Until the burden that she brought forth
Was heavy as she could bear.

The first who stopped her upon her way
Was an angel with sword aflame,
“The Lord has sent for your load,” he said,
“St. Michael it is my name.”

The woman drew back his gown of white,
And the cloven hoof did see.
“Oh, God, be with me to-night,” she cried,
“For bitter my sorrows be.

“I will not give it to you,” she wept,
Quick grasping her burden tight;
And all the souls that surrounded her
Clung closer in dire affright.

The next who stopped her upon her way
Was a maid all fair to see,
And “Sister, your load is great,” she said,
“So give it, I pray, to me.”

“The Virgin, I am, God sent me forth
That you to your love might go,”
The woman she saw the phantom's eyes
And paled at their fierce red glow:

“I will not give it to you,” said she,
And wept full many a tear.
And all the souls that her burden made
Cried out in desperate fear.


The third who met her upon her way
Was a Man with face so fair:
She knelt her down at his wounded feet,
And she laid her burden there.

“Oh I will give it to You” she said,
And fell in a swoon so deep,
The flying souls and their cries of joy
Did not wake her from her sleep.

Seven long days did her slumber last,
And, oh, but her dream was sweet,
She thought she wandered in God's far land,
The bliss of her hopes complete!

And when she woke on the seventh day
To her love's home did she go.
And there she met neither man nor maid
Who ever her face did know.

And lo! she saw set a wedding feast,
And tall by her own love's side
There leaned a maiden, all young and fair,
Who never should be his bride.

“A drink, a drink, my little page boy,
A drink I do pray you bring.”
She took the goblet up in her hand,
And dropped in her golden ring.

“He who would marry, my little page,
I pray he may drink with me,
‘To the old true love he has forgot,’
And this must his toasting be.”

When her false lover had got the cup
He drained it both deep and dry,
“To my dead love that I mourned so long,
I would that she now were nigh.”


He took from the cup the golden ring,
And he turned it in his hand;
He said, “Whoever has sent this charm
I cannot her power withstand.”

“Oh she is weary, and sad, and old,”
The little page boy replied;
But Dermod strode through the startled guests,
And stood by his own love's side.

He took her up in his two strong arms,
And “Have you come home?” he said,
“Twice seven long years I mourned you well
As silent among the dead.”

He kissed her twice on her faded cheek,
And thrice on her snow-white hair.
“And this is my own true wife,” he said
To the guests who gathered there.

“Oh she is withered and old,” they cried,
“And her hair is pale as snow.
'Twere better you took the fair young girl,
And let the sad old love go.”

“I will not marry the fair young girl.
No woman I wed but this,
The sweet white rose of her cheek,” said he,
“Shall redden beneath my kiss.

“There is no beauty in all the land
That can with her face compare.”
He led her up to the table head.
And set her beside him there.