The Magician Earl

By J. Sheridan Le Fanu

His fairest castle stood upon an island in the lake. Photo by Benjamin Suter on

It is well known that the great Earl of Desmond, though history pretends to dispose of him differently, lives to this hour enchanted in his castle. He dwells with all his household, at the bottom of the lake.

There was not, in his day, in all the world, so accomplished a magician as he. His fairest castle stood upon an island in the lake, and to this he brought his young and beautiful bride. His lady he loved too well; for she prevailed upon his folly to risk all to gratify her imperious caprice.

They had not been long in this beautiful castle, when trouble befell them. She one day presented herself in the chamber in which her husband studied his forbidden art. There she implored him to exhibit some of the wonders of his evil science. He resisted long. Her entreaties, tears, and wheedlings were at length too much for him, however, and he consented.

But before beginning those astonishing transformations with which he was about to amaze her, he explained to her the awful conditions and dangers of the experiment.

They were alone in this vast apartment. But he said the castle walls were lapped, far below, by a lake. Its dark waters lay waiting to swallow them, he warned. She must witness a certain series of frightful phenomena, which once commenced, he could neither abridge nor mitigate; and if throughout their ghastly succession she spoke one word, or uttered one exclamation, the castle and all that it contained would in one instant subside to the bottom of the lake, there to remain, under the servitude of a strong spell, for ages.

Yet the dauntless curiosity of the lady had prevailed. Thus after locking and barring the door of the study, the Earl commenced the experiments.

The horror

Muttering a spell, as he stood before her, feathers sprouted thickly over him, his face became contracted and hooked, a cadaverous smell filled the air, and, with heavy winnowing wings, a gigantic vulture rose in his stead, and swept round and round the room, as if on the point of pouncing upon her.

The lady commanded herself through this trial, and instantly another began.

The bird alighted near the door, and in less than a minute changed, she saw not how, into a horribly deformed and dwarfish hag: who, with yellow skin hanging about her face and enormous eyes, swung herself on crutches toward the lady, her mouth foaming with fury, and her grimaces and contortions becoming more and more hideous every moment, till she rolled with a yell on the floor, in a horrible convulsion, at the lady’s feet, and then changed into a huge serpent, with crest erect, and quivering tongue.

Suddenly, as it seemed on the point of darting at her, she saw her husband in its stead, standing pale before her, and, with his finger on his lip, enforcing the continued necessity of silence. He then placed himself at his length on the floor, and began to stretch himself out and out, longer and longer, until his head nearly reached to one end of the vast room, and his feet to the other.

This horror overcame her. The ill-starred lady uttered a wild scream, whereupon the castle and all that was within it, sank in a moment to the bottom of the lake.

But, once in every seven years, by night, the Earl of Desmond and his retinue emerge. They cross the lake, in shadowy cavalcade. On that one night, the earl may ride till daybreak, and it behoves him to make tracks; for, until the silver shoes of his white horse be worn through, he shall remain cursed. The spell that holds him and his beneath the lake, will retain its power until then.

Once every seven years the earl with all his household emerge for a night’s ride.

Strange story to tell

When I , Ann Baily, was a child, there lived a man named Teigue O’Neill, who had a strange story to tell about the earl.

He was a smith, and his forge stood on the brow of the hill, overlooking the lake. It was on a lonely part of the road to Cahir Conlish. One bright moonlight night, he was working very late, and quite alone. The clink of his hammer, and its glow were reflected through the open door onto the bushes across the road. These were the only tokens that told of life and vigil for miles around.

In one of the pauses of his work, he heard the ring of many hoofs ascending the steep road that passed his forge, and, standing in this doorway, he was just in time to see a gentleman, on a white horse, who was dressed in a fashion the like of which the smith had never seen before. This man was accompanied and followed by a mounted retinue, as strangely dressed as he.

They seemed, by the clang and clatter that announced their approach, to be riding up the hill at a hard hurry-scurry gallop; but the pace abated as they drew near, and the rider of the white horse who, from his grave and lordly air, he assumed to be a man of rank, and accustomed to command, drew bridle and came to a halt before the smith’s door.

He all his train were silent, but he beckoned to the smith, and pointed to his horse’s foot.

Teigue stooped and raised it, and held it long enough to see that it was shod with a silver shoe; which, in one place, he said, was worn as thin as a shilling. Instantaneously, his situation was made apparent to him by this sign, and he recoiled with a terrified prayer. The lordly rider, with pain and fury, struck at him with something that whistled in the air like a whip. An icy streak seemed to traverse his body as if he had been cut through with a leaf of steel. But he was without scathe or scar, as he afterwards found. At the same moment he saw the whole cavalcade break into a gallop and disappear down the hill. They momentarily hurtled through the air like a volley of cannon shot.

Here had been the earl himself. He had tried one of his accustomed stratagems to lead the smith to speak to him. For it is well known he tries such tricks. For the purpose of abridging or of mitigating his period of enchantment, he seeks to lead people to accost him. But what, in the event of his succeeding, would befall the person whom he had thus ensnared, no one knows.