The Unbidden Guest
The following folktale entitled ‘The Unbidden Guest’ was published in ‘Goblin Tales of Lancashire’ by James Bowker (1878). ‘On a little lane leading from the town of Clitheroe there once lived a noted ‘cunning man,’ to whom all sorts of applications were made, not only by the residents, but also by people from distant places, for the fame of the wizard had spread over the whole country side. If a theft was committed, at once the services of ‘Owd Jeremy’ were enlisted, and, as a result, some one entirely innocent was, if not accused, at least suspected; while maidens and young men, anxious to pry into futurity, and behold the faces of their unknown admirers, paid him trifling fees to enable them to gratify their curiosity.
In short, Jeremy professed to be an able student of the Black Art, on familiar speaking terms with Satan, and duly qualified to foretell men’s destinies by the aid of the stars.
The cottage in which the old man resided was of a mean order, and its outward appearance was by no means likely to impress visitors with an idea that great pecuniary advantages had followed that personal acquaintance with the Evil One of which the wizard boasted. If, however, the outside was mean and shabby, the inside of the dwelling was of a nature better calculated to inspire inquirers with feelings of awe, hung round, as the one chamber was, with faded and moth-eaten black cloth, upon which grotesque astrological designs and the figure of a huge dragon were worked in flaming red. The window being hidden by the dingy tapestry, the only light in the room came from a starved-looking candle, which was fixed in the foot of the skeleton of a child, attached to a string from the ceiling, and dangling just over the table, where a ponderous volume lay open before a large crystal globe and two skulls.
In an old-fashioned chair, above which hung suspended a dirty and dilapidated crocodile, the wizard sat, and gave audience to the stray visitors whose desire to peer into futurity overmastered the fear with which the lonely cottage was regarded. A quaint-looking old man was Jeremy, with his hungry-looking eyes and long white beard; and, as with bony fingers he turned over the leaves of the large book, there was much in his appearance likely to give the superstitious and ignorant customers overwhelming ideas of his wondrous wisdom. The ‘make up’ was creditable to Jeremy, for though he succeeded in deceiving others with his assumption of supernatural knowledge, he himself did not believe in those powers whose aid he so frequently professed to invoke on behalf of his clients.
One day, when the ragged cloth had fallen behind a victim who was departing from the wizard’s sanctum with a few vague and mysterious hints in exchange for solid coin, the old man, after laughing sarcastically, pulled aside the dingy curtains and stepped to the casement, through which the glorious sunlight was streaming. The scene upon which the wizard looked was a very beautiful one; and the old man leaned his head upon his hands and gazed intently upon the landscape.
”Tis a bonnie world,’ said he,—”tis a bonnie world, and there are few views in it to compare with this one for beauty. My soul is drawn toward old Pendle, yon, with a love passing that of woman, heartless and passionless though the huge mass be. Heartless!’ said he, after a pause,—’heartless! when every minute there is a fresh expression upon its beautiful front? Ay, even so, for it looms yonder calm and unconcerned when we are ushered into the world, and when we are ushered out of it, and laid to moulder away under the mountain’s shadow; and it will rear its bold bluffs to heaven and smile in the sunlight or frown in the gloom after we who now love to gaze upon it are blind to the solemn loveliness of its impassable face.
Poor perishable fools are we, with less power than the breeze which ruffles yon purple heather!’
With a heavy sigh Jeremy turned away from the window, and as the curtain fell behind him, and he stood again in the wretchedly-lighted room, he saw that he was not alone. The chair in which the trembling hinds generally were asked to seat themselves held a strange-looking visitor of dark and forbidding aspect.
‘Jeremiah,’ said this personage, ‘devildom first and poetising afterwards.’
There was an unpleasant tone of banter in this speech, which did not seem in keeping with the character of one who fain would pry into futurity; and as the wizard took his usual position beneath the crocodile, he looked somewhat less oracular than was his wont when in front of a shivering and terrified inquirer.
‘What wantest thou with me?’ said he, with an ill-assumed appearance of unconcern.
The occupant of the chair smiled sardonically as he replied—
‘A little security—that’s all. For five-and-twenty years thou hast been amassing wealth by duping credulous fools, and it is time I had my percentage.’
The wizard stared in astonishment. Was the stranger a thief, or worse? he wondered, but after a time, however, he said, drily—
‘Even if thou hadst proved thy right to a portion of the profits of my honest calling—and thou hast not—thou wouldst not require a packhorse to carry thy share away. Doth this hovel resemble the abode of a possessor of great wealth? Two chairs, a table, and a few old bones, its furniture; and its tenant a half-starved old man, who has had hard work to support life upon the pittance he receives in return for priceless words of wisdom! Thou art a stranger to me, and thy portion of my earnings is correctly represented by a circle.’
A loud and unmusical laugh followed the wizard’s words; and before the unpleasant sound had died away the visitor remarked—
‘If I am yet a stranger to thee, Jeremiah, ’tis not thy fault, for during the last quarter of a century thou hast boasted of me as thy willing servant, and extorted hard cash from thy customers upon the strength of my friendship and willingness to help thee; and now, true to thy beggarly instincts, thou wouldst deny me! But ’twill be in vain, Jeremiah—’twill be in vain! I have postponed this visit too long already to be put off with subterfuges now.’
‘I repeat, I know thee not,’ said the wizard, in a trembling voice. And, hurriedly rising from his chair, he flung aside the thick curtain, in order that the light of day might stream into the chamber, for a nameless fear had taken possession of him, and he did not care to remain in the darkened apartment with his suspicious visitor. To his surprise and terror, however, darkness had fallen upon the scene, and, as he gazed in alarm at the little diamond-framed window, through which so short a time before he had looked upon a fair prospect of meadow and mountain, a vivid flash of lightning darted across the heavens, and a clap of thunder burst over the cottage.
”Twill spoil good men’s harvests, Jeremiah,’ the stranger calmly said; ‘but it need not interrupt our interesting conversation.’
Angry at the bantering manner in which the visitor spoke, the wizard flung open the door, and cried—
‘Depart from my dwelling, ere I cast thee forth into the mire!’
‘Surely thou wouldst not have the heart to fulfil thy threat,’ said the stranger, ‘although ’tis true I have but one shoe to be soiled by the mud.’ And as he spoke he quietly crossed his legs, and Jeremiah perceived a hideous cloven foot.
With a groan, the wizard sank into his chair, and, deaf to the roaring of the thunder, and to the beating of the rain through the doorway, he sat helplessly gazing at his guest, whose metallic laughter rang through the room.
‘Hast thou at length recognised me, Jeremiah?’ asked the Evil One, after an interval, during which he had somewhat prominently displayed the hoof, and gloated over the agony its exhibition had caused his victim.
The old man was almost too terrified to answer, but at last he whispered—
‘And thou no longer wilt refuse me the security?’ hissed the tormentor, as he placed a parchment upon the table.
‘What security dost thou demand?’ feebly inquired the quaking wizard.
‘Personal only,’ said Satan. ‘Put thy name to this,’ and he pointed to the bond.
Jeremy pushed his chair as far from the suspicious-looking document as he could ere he replied—
‘Thou shalt not have name of mine.’
He had expected that an outburst of fiendish wrath would follow this speech, but to his surprise the guest simply remarked—
‘Very well, Jeremiah. By to-morrow night, however, thou shalt be exposed as the base and ignorant pretender thou art. Thou hast trespassed upon the rightful trade of my faithful servants long enough, and ’tis time I stopped thy prosperous career. Ere sunset thou shalt have a rival, who will take the bread from thy ungrateful mouth.’
After this polite speech the visitor picked up the parchment, and began to fold it in a methodical manner.
Such utterly unexpected gentlemanly behaviour somewhat reassured Jeremiah, and in a fainter voice he humbly asked what his visitor had to give in exchange for a wizard’s autograph.
‘Twenty-two years of such success as thou hast not even dared to dream of! No opposition—no exposure to thy miserable dupes,’ readily answered Satan.
Jeremiah considered deeply. The offer undoubtedly was a tempting one, for after all, his profession had not been very lucrative, and to lose his customers, therefore, meant starvation. He was certain that if another wizard opened an establishment the people would flock to him, even through mere curiosity; but he knew what signing the bond included, and he was afraid to take the step.
After a long delay, during which Satan carefully removed a sharp stone from his hoof, Jeremiah therefore firmly said—
‘Master, I’ll not sign!’
Without more ado the visitor departed, and almost before he was out of sight the storm abated, and old Pendle again became visible.
A few days passed, and no one came to the dwelling of the wizard; and as such an absence of customers was very unusual, Jeremy began to fear that the supernatural stranger had not forgotten his threat. On the evening of the fifth day he crept into the little town to purchase some articles of food. Previously, whenever he had had occasion to make a similar journey, as he passed along the street the children ran away in terror, and the older people addressed him with remarkable humility; but this time, as he stepped rapidly past the houses, the youngsters went on with their games as though only an ordinary mortal went by, and a burly fellow who was leaning against a door jamb took his pipe from his mouth to cry familiarly—
‘Well, Jerry, owd lad, heaw are ta’?’
These marks of waning power and fading popularity were sufficiently unmistakable; but as he was making his few purchases he was informed that a stranger, who seemed to be possessed of miraculous powers, had arrived in the town, and that many people who had been to him were going about testifying to his wonderful skill. With a heavy heart the wizard returned to his cottage. Next night a shower of stones dashed his window to pieces, and, as he peered into the moonlight lane, he saw a number of rough fellows, who evidently were waiting and watching in hopes that he would emerge from his dwelling. These were the only visitors he had during an entire week; and at length, quite prepared to capitulate, he said to himself—
‘I wish I had another chance.’
No sooner had he uttered the words, than there was a sudden burst of thunder, wind roared round the house, again the clients’ chair was occupied, and the parchment lay upon the table just as though it had not been disturbed.
‘Art thou ready to sign?’ asked Satan.
‘Ay!’ answered the old man.
The Evil One immediately seized the wizard’s hand, upon which Jeremy gave a piercing yell, as well he might do, for the Satanic grip had forced the blood from the tips of his fingers.
‘Sign!’ said the Devil.
‘I can’t write,’ said the wizard.
The Evil One forthwith took hold of one of the victim’s fingers, and using it as a pen, wrote in a peculiarly neat hand ‘Jeremiah Parsons, his × mark,’ finishing with a fiendish flourish.
After doing this he again vacated the chair and the room as mysteriously as on the previous occasion.
The autograph-loving visitor had barely departed with the parchment ere a knock at the door was heard, and in stepped a man who wished to have the veil lifted, and who brought the pleasing news that, influenced by the reports of the opposition wizard, he had been to his house in Clitheroe, but had found it empty, the whilom tenant having fled no one knew whither. From that time things looked up with Jeremy, and money poured into the skulls, for people crowded from far and near to test his skill. For two-and-twenty years he flourished and was famous, but the end came. One morning, after a wild night when the winds howled round Pendle, and it seemed as though all the powers of darkness were let loose, some labourers who were going to their work were surprised to find only the ruins of the wizard’s cottage. The place had been consumed by fire; and although search was made for the magician’s remains, only a few charred bones were found, and these, some averred, were not those of old Jeremy, but were relics of the dusty old skeleton and the dirty crocodile under the shadow of which the wizard used to sit.