It is a fact well known among the countryfolk that once in a every year, at midnight on Christmas Eve, the beasts of the stable can speak and converse like men about their—and sometimes our—business. So it happened many years ago that a pedlar, taking shelter on that holy night in a rich farmer's barn, heard the beasts in conference.
"Ah!" said the ass. "On this night I remember carrying the Christ-Child and Mary his mother into Bethlehem, into the stable."
"Oh!" said the ox. "On this night I remember how blessed Joseph brought me nearer the manger, that my heat might warm the Virgin and Child."
"And we," said the sheep, "we remember a great light in the sky, and the shepherd afraid, and the song of the angels."
"And I," said the dog, "though I was not there—" for he was a wolfhound— "remember the night also, for it was on the night eight nights after that the stones of an Tóchar first rolled into the sea."
"Into the sea?" cried all the beasts. "Tell us, how could that be so?"
"As easily," said the dog, "as we all can talk tonight, for this is a time of miracles. Remember you not that at his coming 'the very stones would cry out'? And if they might cry out, might they also not be moved? And the stones of an Tóchar, on the night of his circumcision, being eight days after his birth, shook themselves from the roadbed where they lay, and rolled down to the sea, that the water which touched his shores might wash over them also—for that was the closest the angel of Kerry, in the miracle, would allow them to go to Galilee."
"And you say," said the ox, "that this was the first such night?"
"Aye," said the dog, "for it has happened every New Year's Eve since. And in reward for their devotion, Our Lord when he ascended allowed the angel of Kerry to transform the earthen bed on which the stones lay; and from that time up until now the stones have lain not on dust but on gold."
"On gold!" cried all the animals; and the pedlar, pretending to be asleep in the byre, pricked up his ears.
"Gold!" repeated the ass. "But have not men, in the years that have followed, born all such treasure away?"
"Few men know of it," said the dog. "And even those that have heard the tale, how could they believe? Besides, if any man would attempt to bear away the gold, he would find himself fixed to the spot, and be crushed by the stones on their retiring; it has happened so before."
"But is there no way a man may escape that fate?" asked the ox.
"He may," said the dog; and the pedlar pricked up his ears again. "But there are two conditions he must fulfill. First, he must protect himself by carrying a leaflet of the mystic cinquefoil, that most rare plant that grows only on the slopes of Mount Olivet. Second, he must bring with him one other person, one Christian soul, to be sacrificed under the stones—for if the fold be taken, the stones will take blood; but the cinquefoil ensures that its bearer will not be the one to suffer the penalty."
"A most pagan spell," said the ox, "for stones so Christian in their inclinations."
"Aye," said the dog, "But you must remember, though they were moved by Christ they were not christened."
Now the pedlar kept all these words, pondering them inwardly and committing them to memory; and the next morning he set off for the Holy Land, there to find the mystic cinquefoil. And having plucked the plant up by the roots from the slopes of Mount Olivet, he turned back towards an Tóchar, arriving a long year after the time he had set out.
It was New Year's Eve, and as he walked over the slopes of an Tóchar he bethought himself where he should find the Christian soul to sacrifice to the stones—for the cinquefoil, he knew, remembering the tale of the dog, would avail him nothing without that price. And as he walked, pondering, he arrived at the fields of the very farm where he had spent the night the Christmas before; and crossing the fields he chanced to hear the sound of a pipe—a melancholy tune. He turned the bend in the road then, and found himself face-to-face with a shepherd, sitting on a rock and puffing away as if his heart should be got to burst if it could. In between the bursts of song the shepherd would lay down his pipe and chip away with his steel at one of the stones that lay on the road—one of the very stones, the pedlar thought, that would be getting up and bathing itself in the sea not nine hours hence.
"What be you carving, my lad?" asked the pedlar—none too kindly, for he did not take to the notion of anyone interfering with his stones.
"Why!" said the shepherd, "I am putting a cross on this stone."
"What good can that do you?"
"What good I don't know, but no harm I hold. They say these are the gravestones of druids, and to hallow them a little mayn't hurt, if the tale be true. In any case, it can never be a waste for a body to be carving a cross." And so saying he dealt the last stroke to the rude carving, and picking up his pipe again resumed the mournful tune.
Now it occurred to the pedlar that the shepherd had an honest brow, and so he took it into his head to ask the lad what troubled him that fine New Year's Eve.
"Ah!" said the shepherd, "it is a dance that they are having at the Great House tonight, and I am not to go, being the least of the shepherds; besides which, the Master has taken a grudge against me."
"Taken a grudge against a fine upstanding fellow like you? Now why in thunderation would the Master do that?"
"Why, but for what other reason than that his daughter is fond of me, and I love her most dearly; but tonight she will dance with all the finest lads of the village, and maybe her mother will succeed in persuading her to choose one of them instead of me."
"Good gracious!" cried the pedlar. "Why do you not run away with the lass?"
"Ah! that is a sad thing too; for the priest of the parish will not marry us without any money of mine, and rightly too, I don't wonder; for though Mary and I might be right enough for tramping the roads—that is, she would be willing, though I should sore hate to see it—what should we do when the bairns came along?"
Then the pedlar sat down and put his arm about the shepherd, and began to tell him the story of the stones, and the treasure that lay beneath them. And he told him of the cinquefoil, but not of the other caution, for he had lit upon the shepherd as his Christian soul. And the shepherd, all innocent of the pedlar's intentions, and eager to earn a bride price for Mary, agreed to meet the pedlar on that very spot that night.
So they met when it was nearly midnight, under a full moon, with the waves of the shore out of sight but not, at that quiet hour, out of hearing, lapping against the first stones of the old road. And as they sat on the bank and watched and waited, the old church clock in the village wound up its arms to chime, and the stones quivered in their beds; and with the first stroke of the first hour of the New Year they stood up on end and rolled in a mighty rushing down to the sea.
Ah! then the treasure beneath the stones glistened in the moon; and well you may believe that the shepherd and the pedlar leapt down from their safety to claim it, filling their pockets and wallets as fast as every they could, and all the while the clock striking, one ... two ... The pedlar found a ring ... three ... four ... The shepherd had a bracelet for his Mary ... five ... six ... The pedlar's pockets were heavy ... seven ... eight ... he was filling his hat ... nine ... ten ... The shepherd snapped his wallet shut ... eleven ... The pedlar reached for a last piece of gold ...
Twelve! and the stones began to roll back up from the sea. The shepherd turned to climb the bank to safety, but he found to his horror that he could not move; he was fixed to the spot. He turned to the pedlar, who was still picking up the gold pieces, all unconcerned, and cried to him to run while he had the chance.
The pedlar only laughed and shook the cinquefoil. "I have my protection!"
"Can that little plant protect you?" cried the shepherd. "Run while your legs will still take you away!"
But the pedlar continued to scramble for gold. The first stones had risen to the edge of the hill.
"Now!" cried the shepherd. "Run!"
The pedlar looked up at the advancing stones, and then back at the shepherd. "Run yourself!" he crowed. "You cannot, and I have no need too. You are right that this little plant, as you call it, which cost me so much labor to get, is not enough to stop the stones from crushing me. But." He took two or three steps closer to the shepherd, and looked him in the eyes. "Druid stones, you called them? Druid stones indeed! and they will have man's blood."
Then the shepherd grew cold and pale, for he felt the stones advancing in the moonlight, shaking the earth as they came; and he understood.
"You wretched man!" he cried. "Have you sold one of your own fellow men for gold?"
The pedlar sprang away with a wicked laugh. "Aye, curse me if you will!" he cried.
The shepherd said nothing more, but only fell to his knees and covered his face with his hands. But he could not shut out the roar of the advancing stones, or the cackle of the pedlar's laughter.
Presently, however, the laughter changed to imprecations. The pedlar was swearing at the stones, calling them all manner of names, and threatening them with hellish fates if they would not obey his orders, and crush the shepherd straightway. So the shepherd, his curiosity getting the better of his terror, opened his eyes and looked up.
Before him between himself and the sea stood a single great stone, tall and cold in the moonlight, and on its breast, as it were, at the level of the shepherd's eyes, there was carved a rude cross. Around their brother on either side the other stones rolled, leaving the shepherd untouched while the pedlar danced with rage. Into their old beds the other stones fell, sounding stone after stone like so many cannon, until all that was left were the pedlar, the trembling shepherd, and the silent stone, standing in the moonlight. Then, with a great heave and a creaking as of its bones, the stone with the cross turned on its side and rolled towards the pedlar.
The man's rage turned to disbelief and then to fear. He turned and tried to run, but he found he could not, He tried to cry out, but his voice failed him. He brandished the mystic cinquefoil in the face of the stone, but still it came forward; and finally it bore down upon him and, falling into its own bed, buried his body beneath itself.
Still trembling, the shepherd picked himself up and walked towards the stone. He traced the cross on top of it, and traced the Cross on his breast, and said a prayer for the soul of the pedlar. Then he picked up his wallet—and the pedlar's own gold-filled hat, which he had cast aside in his dismay—and went trotting over the Master's fields toward the parish.
Of what beasts talk on Christmas at midnight in these days, I cannot say. Whether the stones of an Tóchar still bathe in the sea on New Year's Eve I do not know. But of this I am sure: the shepherd and his Mary were wed before the parish priest at Candlemas; and I pray, gentlemen all, that God rest you as merry as they.