The Sands of Cocker
The following story entitled ‘The Sands of Cocker’ was published in ‘Goblin Tales of Lancashire’ by James Bowker (1878). ‘The quiet little village of Cockerham is hardly the spot one would expect to find selected as a place of residence by a gentleman of decidedly fast habits, and to whom a latch-key is indispensable; yet once upon a time the Evil One himself, it is said, took up his quarters in the go-to-bed-early hamlet. It hardly need be stated that the undesirable resident caused no small stir in the hitherto drowsy little place. Night after night he prowled about with clanking chains, and shed an unpleasantly-suggestive odour of sulphur, that rose to the diamond-paned windows and crept through cracks and chinks to the nasal organs of the horrified villagers, who had been disturbed by the ringing of the Satanic bracelets, and, fearing to sleep whilst there was so strong a smell of brimstone about, lay awake, thinking of the sins they had committed, or intended to commit if they escaped ‘Old Skrat.’
Before the wandering perfumer had thus, above a score of times, gratuitously fumigated the villagers, a number of the more daring ones, whose courage rose when they found that after all they were not flown away with, resolved that they would have a meeting, at which the unjustifiable conduct of a certain individual should be discussed, and means be devised of ridding the village of his odoriferous presence. In accordance with this determination, a gathering was announced for noonday, for the promoters of the movement did not dare to assemble after sunset to discuss such a subject. After a few cursory remarks from the chairman, and a long and desultory discussion as to the best way of getting rid of the self-appointed night watchman, it was settled that the schoolmaster, as the most learned man in the place, should be the deputation, and have all the honour and profit of an interview with the nocturnal rambler.
Strange as it may appear, the pedagogue was nothing loath to accept the office, for if there was one thing more than another for which he had longed, it was an opportunity of immortalising himself; the daily round of life in the village certainly affording but few chances of winning deathless fame. He therefore at once agreed to take all the risks if he might also have all the glory. Not that he purposed to go to the Devil; no, the mountain should come to Mahomet; the Evil One should have the trouble of coming to him.
His determination was loudly applauded by the assembled villagers, each of whom congratulated himself upon an escape from the dangerous, if noble, task of ridding the place of an intolerable nuisance.
There was no time to be lost, and a night or two afterwards, no sooner had the clock struck twelve, than the schoolmaster, who held a branch of ash and a bunch of vervain in his hand, chalked the conventional circle15 upon the floor of his dwelling, stepped within it, and in a trembling voice began to repeat the Lord’s Prayer backwards. When he had muttered about half of the spell thunder began to roar in the distance; rain splashed on the roof, and ran in streams from the eaves; a gust of wind moaned round the house, rattling the loose leaded panes, shaking the doors, and scattering the embers upon the hearth. At the same time the solitary light, which had begun to burn a pale and ghastly blue, was suddenly extinguished, as though by an invisible hand; but the terrified schoolmaster was not long left in darkness, for a vivid flash of lightning illuminated the little chamber, and almost blinded the would-be necromancer, who tried to gabble a prayer in the orthodox manner, but his tongue refused to perform its office, and clave to the roof of his mouth.
At that moment, could he have made his escape, he would willingly have given to the first comer all the glory he had panted to achieve; but even had he dared to leave the magic circle, there was not time to do so, for almost immediately there was a second blast of wind, before which the trees bent like blades of grass, a second flash lighted up the room, a terrible crash of thunder shook the house to its foundations, and, as a number of evil birds, uttering doleful cries, dashed themselves through the window, the door burst open, and the schoolmaster felt that he was no longer alone.
An instantaneous silence, dreadful by reason of the contrast, followed, and the moon peeped out between the driving clouds and threw its light into the chamber. The birds perched themselves upon the window sill and ceased to cry, and with fiery-looking eyes peered into the room, and suddenly the trembling amateur saw the face of the dark gentleman whose presence only a few minutes before he had so eagerly desired.
Overpowered by the sight, his knees refused to bear him up, what little hair had not been removed from his head by the stupidity of the rising generation stood on end, and with a miserable groan he sank upon his hands and knees, but, fortunately for himself, within the magic ring, round which the Evil One was running rapidly. How long this gratuitous gymnastic entertainment continued he knew not, for he was not in a state of mind to judge of the duration of time, but it seemed an age to the unwilling observer, who, afraid of having the Devil behind him, and yielding to a mysterious mesmeric influence, endeavoured, by ncrawling round backward, to keep the enemy’s face in front. At length, however, the saltatory fiend asked in a shrill and unpleasant voice,
‘Rash fool, what wantest thou with me? Couldst thou not wait until in the ultimate and proper course of things we had met?’
Terrified beyond measure not only at the nature of the pertinent question, but also by the insinuation and the piercing and horrible tone in which it was spoken, the tenant of the circle knew not what reply to make, and merely stammered and stuttered—
‘Good Old Nick,16 go away for ever, and’—
‘Take thee with me,’ interrupted the Satanic one quickly. ‘Even so; such is my intent.’
Upon this the poor wretch cried aloud in terror, and again the Evil One began to hop round and round and round the ring, evidently in the hope of catching a part of the body of the occupant projecting over the chalk mark.
‘Is there no escape,’ plaintively asked the victim in his extremity, ‘is there no escape?’
Upon this Old Nick suddenly stopped his gambols and quietly said,
‘Three chances of escape shalt thou have, but if thou failest, then there is no appeal.Set me three tasks, and if I cannot perform any one of them, then art thou free.’
There was a glimmer of hope in this, and the shivering necromancer brightened up a little, actually rising from his ignoble position and once more standing erect, as he gleefully said,
‘Ah, ah,’ said the Evil One sotto voce.
‘Count the raindrops on the hedgerows from here to Ellel,’ cried the schoolmaster.
‘Thirteen,’ immediately answered Satan, ‘the wind I raised when I came shook all the others off.’
‘One chance gone,’ said the wizard, whose knees again began to manifest signs of weakness.
There was a short pause, the schoolmaster evidently taking time to consider, for, after all, life, even in a place like Cockerham, was sweet in comparison with what might be expected in the society of the odoriferous one whose mirth was so decidedly ill-timed and unmusical.
The silence was not of long continuance, however, for the Evil One began to fear that a detestably early cock might crow, and thereby rescue the trembling one from his clutches. In his127 impatience, therefore, he knocked upon the floor with his cloven hoof and whistled loudly, after the manner followed now-a-days by dirty little patrons of the drama, perched high in the gallery of a twopenny theatre, and again danced rapidly round the ring in what the tenant deemed unnecessary proximity to the chalk mark.
‘Count the ears of corn in old Tithepig’s field,’ suddenly cried the schoolmaster.
‘Three millions and twenty-six,’ at once answered Satan.
‘I have no way of checking it,’ moaned the pedagogue.
‘Ah, ah,’ bellowed the fiend, who now, instead of hopping round the ring, capered in high glee about the chamber.
‘Ho, ho!’ laughed the schoolmaster, ‘I have it! Here it is! Ho, ho! Twist a rope of sand18 and wash it in the river Cocker without losing a grain.’
The Evil One stepped out of the house, to the great relief of its occupier, who at once felt that the atmosphere was purer; but in a few minutes he returned with the required rope of sand.
‘Come along,’ said he, ‘and see it washed.’ And he swung it over his shoulder, and stepped into the lane.
In the excitement of the moment the wizard had almost involuntarily stepped out of the magic circle, when suddenly he bethought himself of the danger, and drily said—
‘Thank you; I’ll wait here. By the light of the moon I can see you wash it.’
The baffled fiend, without more ado, stepped across to the rippling streamlet, and dipped the rope into the water, but when he drew it out he gave utterance to a shout of rage and disappointment, for half of it had been washed away.
‘Hurrah!’ shouted the schoolmaster. ‘Cockerham against the world!’ And as in his joy he jumped out of the ring, the Evil One, instead of seizing him, in one stride crossed Pilling Moss and Broadfleet, and vanished, and from that night to the present day Cockerham has been quite free from Satanic visits.