Faustian Pacts: Billy Duffy and the Devil

A Faustian Pact

Presented here is a retelling of a folktale from Welsh Fairy-Tales And Other Stories – Author: Anonymous – Edited by P. H. Emerson.  The story is essentially a Faustian pact – a contract made with the Devil – by a roguish character intent on living a debauched and immoderate lifestyle.  Although the Devil usually comes out tops in such deals occasionally he meets someone who is a bit too clever for him and comes unstuck.  The story is also an etiological folktale giving an explanation of the origin of the phenomenon known as the “will-o’-the-wisp” from many folkloric traditions.

Billy Duffy and the Devil

The story centers on Billy Duffy, an all round drunkard, philanderer and blaggard, a blacksmith by trade and a very good one when he was sober.   He worked in his own smithy, which was also his home.  He tended to work until he had made just enough money to tide him over extended periods when he partook in his favorite activities of drinking, gambling and philandering.  After one such spree, with his money gone, he was staggering home when he said to himself, “Good God, if only I could just get my hands on more booze I would gladly sell myself to the Devil!”

After a few more steps to his complete surprise, he felt someone tap him on the shoulder from behind.   Looking around he saw a tall, dark, gentleman dressed in shiny red looking down on him.  

“Ahem!” said the gentleman, “What did you say?”

“I said I would gladly sell myself to the Devil for more money for booze!” replied Billy slurring his speech and swaying this way and that.

“Hmm now,” replied the gentleman, “how much money would you want to cover you for the next seven years and at the end of that time the Devil takes your soul?”

“Aw, well now, that’s a good question that I cannot rightly answer when it comes right down to it!” replied Billy.

“Would a bucket of gold sovereigns be enough?” asked the gentleman.

“Best make it three!” replied Billy never afraid to push his luck.

“Ok, three it is and at the end of seven years the Devil will find you.  He will then give you three days grace at the end of this period with as much money as you like and then your very soul shall be his for eternity.  Do you agree!” replied the gentleman his eyes glittering and a sneering smile forming in the corner of his mouth.

“I would be glad to accept that even if the Devil himself offered it!” replied Billy eagerly.

“Billy, surely you know who I am don’t you?”

“Alright, I guess you are the Devil himself, but I still agree!” replied Billy.

With business concluded the Devil produced a piece of paper and asking him to hold out a finger, pricked it making it bleed and wrote out the contract and a copy of it in Billy’s blood.  He made sure Billy had read and signed both papers and giving him the contract retained the copy and promptly disappeared.  Billy staggered home forgetting the incident putting it down to the alcohol but when he opened the door to his smithy he found three big buckets brimming with gold sovereigns.

Three Wishes

Grabbing a handful and after carefully hiding the rest he staggered back to his favorite pub and began treating everyone to drinks again and again.  It was only when he slipped into unconsciousness oblivion that he stopped. The landlord, grateful for such a generous customer, insisted the other drinkers carry him carefully safely home in a wheelbarrow he lent them.

Night after night Billy took a handful of sovereigns from the buckets and spent them in the pubs and bars around town.  He paid for all the drinks of his companions and because of his generosity their numbers grew and grew as people flocked to be part of his entourage.  He spent freely and refused no one.

One evening an old hermit, dressed in rags and starving approached Billy begging him to buy him food and drink.  Billy looked him up and down and invited him to sit next to him, “What can I buy you?” he asked, “You can have anything you fancy that this place sells.”  

So the hermit chose a good wholesome plate of food and mug of beer and proceeded to eat and drink it all ravenously. When he had finished he thanked Billy gratefully and left. Billy did not see him again for several months when he appeared in the same pub in the same famished and impoverished state.  Once again Billy generously treated him and after consuming the food and drink the hermit thanked him and disappeared. 

Several months later he reappeared in the same bar and again Billy brought him food and drink but this time the grateful hermit said, “My thanks to you, Billy Duffy for you have been most kind and generous to me, a poor hermit, three times now.  Therefore, out of gratitude I offer you three wishes of your own choice that will come true.”

This took Billy completely by surprise and he said, “Thank you, I am most grateful but I must have time to think about what to wish for wisely.”

“You can take your time and I will call upon you tomorrow, but make sure they are good wishes!” replied the hermit.

The next day the hermit appeared outside Billy’s smithy just as he was leaving for the night out and asked,

“Have you decided?”

“I have,” said Billy.

“Tell me,” said the hermit.

“The first is this.  In my smithy I have a big sledge-hammer and I wish that whoever takes up that hammer, other than me, shall strike the anvil with it with all their force until I tell them to stop,” said Billy

“Hmm!” replied the hermit, “that is not a very wise wish.  What is the second?”

“The second wish is for a purse that will not let out whatever I put inside it,” answered Billy chuckling. 

“Well, that does not seem like a very good wish either!” said the hermit growing perplexed.

“My third wish is this.  I have an armchair and I wish that anyone who sits in it will be unable to get up until I allow it,” said Billy looking very pleased.

“Billy, Billy, Billy, these are not wise wishes, you could have so much more just on the asking!” exclaimed the hermit.

“Well now, these are my wishes and I think they are very good wishes so will you grant them as you promised,” answered Billy determinedly.

“Very well, as you insist, they are yours and will manifest exactly what you wish for when ever you choose to use them,” replied the perplexed hermit. With that he left the pub and Billy never saw him again.

Time’s Up.

Billy spent all his waking hours in his favorite pastimes of boozing, debauchery and having an all round good time and the years rolled by. He ran out of money just before the seven years were up so he returned to his smithy to make money.  When his time was up the Devil stepped into his forge saying, “Well now Billy Duffy you now have three days grace and you shall have as much money as you desire.  Ask and it will be given.” 

Despite being penniless he had great confidence in the Devil and made his way to his favorite pub.  Stepping inside, he was welcomed raucously by his friends who were all expecting him to treat them. They were profoundly disappointed when he proclaimed he was stony broke.  Nevertheless, he boldly walked up to the bar, slammed his fist down and demanded an empty glass.  The landlord was used to Billy’s antics and always grateful for the money he spent in the past and obliged.  Holding the empty glass aloft Billy cried, “Fill this glass with money!”

The response was dramatic.  After a loud bang and blinding flash Billy was left holding aloft a glass full of money.

“Well, now folks, it seems I am not as broke as I thought.  Landlord, the drinks are on me!” he cried.

Although astonished, the landlord wasted no time in filling everyone’s glass.  He had no idea how Billy did it but it was very good for business.  Billy paid for everyone’s drink that evening and the beer and wine flowed fast and free.  After three days of drinking and debauchery Billy’s money finally ran out and he staggered home.

Billy Tricks the Devil

Out of money he was up working in his smithy the next morning when the Devil arrived and told him, “OK Billy your time is up. It is time to go, come along!”

“Alright, just give me a hand here for a minute so I can finish this job.  Just give that horse shoe there on the anvil a good hammering while I go and wash my hands.” replied Billy moving to the sink and running the tap. 

The Devil, liking to show off, picked hold of the hammer thinking to give the horseshoe three mighty whacks to impress Billy.  However, after the third blow he found he could not stop hammering.”

Billy laughed as he dried his hands and locked up the smithy leaving the Devil hammering away at the horseshoe.   He did not return for three days and in that time the Devil could not stop hammering away night and day.  When he returned Billy found a crowd of people had gathered around the smithy peeping though the window and cracks in the door to see what Billy was up to.

As Billy opened the door he greeted the Devil cheerily who replied angrily, “Billy that is a terrible trick to play on me.  You know who I am and you should show me some respect.  Make me stop!”

“Well now,” replied Billy, “surely you don’t expect something for nothing, do you?  What is it worth?”

“OK! OK!” replied the exasperated Devil, “How about seven more years, twice the money and two days grace where you can wish for what you like?”

Billy readily agreed and the Devil paid up and promptly vanished in a huff.  Billy spent the next seven years filled with boozing, gambling and all kinds of debauchery.  At the end of those seven years again with out a penny Billy returned to his smithy to work for a living.  On the first day of his two days grace he went to his favorite pub and wished for twenty pounds.  Immediately a little tubby man entered the bar with a bag of coins and held it out to Billy.   Of course that night Billy spent the lot until it was gone.  The second night, again Billy wished for money and the little tubby man brought him a bag of coins.

The Devil Takes a Hammering

The next morning he went to the smithy to wait for the Devil knowing he would arrive sooner or later.  It so happened that the Devil, remembering how Billy had tricked him before, arrived at the smithy before him.  Thinking to outsmart Billy, he turned himself into a gold sovereign and lay in wait on Billy’s floor.  When Billy entered he immediately spied the coin and clapped it into the purse he had wished for from the hermit.   Laying the purse on his anvil he proceeded to beat it with his hammer with all his might again and again and again. 

The Devil could not open the purse to escape and was forced to cry out, “Billy!, Billy!, Billy! Stop! Stop! Stop!”

“And if I do what will you give me?” replied Billy.

“I will give you seven more years, three times more money and one day of grace!” replied the Devil

Billy opened the purse and the Devil flew out and Billy got his money.  He carried on spending the next seven years in his usual style.  On his last night of grace Billy went to the pub and wished for money.  Again the little tubby man arrived with a big purse of gold coins for him but this time warned him that this was his last day and in the morning he would be whisked away to hell.  By now the landlord and his drinking partners were all suspicious and the landlord said, “Billy Duffy, I believe you are in league with the Devil.  You will give my house a bad name”

“No, no, not at all! More in league against him and your house has always had a bad name!” retorted Billy, “Why else would I be found here?” 

The landlord had no answer to such logic but demanded, “Well, what is going on?”

“Oh, you will see in due course, have no fear!” replied Billy.  Despite their suspicions his friends and the landlord were all happy to help Billy spend his money.

The next morning Billy began working way in his smithy but the Devil would come nowhere near. Eventually, Billy finished his task and went into his sitting room and started going over papers.   Plucking up courage the Devil entered and said, “Right Billy, let us go now and no tricks!”

“Ah, there you are, I wondered where you were.  Come and sit down for a few minutes while I pop in the smithy and extinguish the furnace.” said Billy, amiably gesturing to the large comfortable looking armchair.

The Devil Gets His Nose Tweaked

The Devil sat down and relaxed in the armchair which really was very comfortable.  Billy went to his smithy, where out of sight of the Devil he heated up a pair of tongs until they were red hot and returned hiding them behind his back.

“Ah, there you are!” said the Devil making to stand up but found he was stuck fast.

With his red hot tongs Billy grabbed the Devil by the nose pulling it and stretching it this way and that.  The Devil roared with pain and fire snorted from his nostrils but it only heated the tongs up further.   Billy clapped an iron cap over his nose to stop the flames. The Devil continued to yell and roar but he could not move from the armchair. A crown gathered around Billy’s house to see what the rumpus was.  Seeing how Billy had the Devil in such dire straits they began clapping and cheering, “Billy’s got the Devil! Billy’s got the Devil! Billy’s got the Devil!”

The Devil, in his predicament cursed and threatened Billy with all the dire consequences he could think of using the vilest and most obnoxious terms. Undeterred, Billy continued tweaking his nose with the red hot tongs. Billy kept him there for days while the Devil shouted and swore.   Eventually he realized that if he was ever to be free he would have to be civil to Billy and calmed down.

“Ok, Billy, what do you want to set me free?” asked the Devil as civilly as he could.

“Well, now sir, I think I would like to be free of you for the rest of my life and have as much money as I like whenever I want it,” replied Billy.

By now the Devil would have agreed to anything and everything so he readily accepted Billy’s proposal.   As promised Billy set him free from the armchair keeping his side of the bargain.  The Devil kept his and Billy had a plentiful and never ending supply of money for the rest of his life.  The Devil, fearing some new ruse of Billy’s never once attempted to interfere with him knowing they would meet again sooner or later. 

Rejected by Heaven, Barred From Hell

Billy never changed his ways and spent his remaining years as he had all his life in a state of drunkenness and debauchery.  He lived to a ripe old age but at last his body could stand the strain no longer and he passed on.  First he went to the Pearly Gates where he met Saint Peter who told him, “No Billy Duffy, you cannot enter here.  You have lived your life as a bad, bold man and you are simply far too bad for Heaven”

So Billy made his way down below to the gates of Hell.  “Who are you?” demanded the gatekeeper opening the gates for him to enter. 

“I am Billy Duffy,” he replied, “and Saint Peter says I am too bad for Heaven!” 

“And too clever for Hell,” roared the Devil who had just appeared around the corner, “Do not let him in.  Lock and bar the gates and keep him out.”

But before anyone could move Billy jumped forward.  Grabbing a pair of red hot tongs which was sizzling in one of the plentiful fires of Hell he seized the Devil by the nose with it.  The Devil shouted and cursed, “My dose, my dose, not my poor dose again!”

Several demons leaped on Billy and dragged him from the Devil.  However, Billy maintained a firm grip on the tongs which squeezed the Devil’s snout terribly, but they pulled so hard the red hot tip of his nose came off.

“Get him out!” cried the Devil, “He is too bad for Heaven and too clever for Hell.”

Will O’ The Wisp

The demons threw Billy out of the Gates of Hell but he still retained the tongs which held fast the tip of the Devil’s nose.   It was so hot it evaporated him but the tongs remained in his hands bearing the glowing tip of the Devil’s nose that shone bright in the darkness and was his only guide.  Folks traveling at night will sometimes see him as a strange light floating in the darkness.  In his lonely wandering he has been seen in many different locations around the world by many different people and became known by many different names.  One of the names he became known by is “Will-o-the-wisp” but the Devil has other names for him which we cannot reveal here.

Copyright 09/09/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 9th, 2021 zteve t evans

Faustian Pacts: The Devil and the Doctor

The People of Longdendale

According to tradition there has always been a high interest in the magic arts among the dwellers of Longdendale. There is an old saying referring to the people of Longendale as being too bad for Heaven and too clever for Hell. The following is a retelling of a folktale from Legends of Longdendale, a collection of folktales from the area, by Thomas C. Middleton, that allegedly explains its origin. 

A Conjuror of High Degree

A rhyme by an unknown author tells a little of one such dweller,

“Long years ago, so runs the tale,

A doctor dwelt in Longdendale;”

“Well versed in mystic lore was he—

A conjuror of high degree;

He read the stars that deck the sky,

And told their rede of mystery.” (1)

From the verse we see that the dweller was a doctor who was skilled in magic, mysticism and astrology.  He was able to predict and understand the mysteries of the movements of the stars and how they would affect us here on Earth.  In his day he was someone who possessed great knowledge and power and these attributes are great gifts if used wisely and for the benefit of humanity.  

To be fair he did use his skills to the benefit of humankind. However,  power corrupts and even those with great knowledge and wisdom there can arise the desire to increase their blessings.  This is exactly what happened to our good doctor.  He began to yearn for more power and deeper knowledge of the secrets of the universe to enable him to do more good in the world.  

Power Corrupts

To begin with he put  aside this desire realizing that there are some things that are best left unknown.  However, once the tiniest yearning for power manifests in a person without the utmost care it can grow silently inside until it takes over the reason.  Again, this is exactly what happened to our good doctor and it drove him to take a daring chance and make a deal with the Devil.

He had delved into  books of ancient lore in search of the secret of increasing his abilities.  After many years of long, lonely study and dark and dangerous research he came to the conclusion there was but one way he could achieve his dream. He knew others had tried it and each one failed and  forced to suffer the most appalling consequences.   Nevertheless, he was hooked and  could not put  aside the temptation and at last he decided he must take the terrible chance. 

The Ultimate Test 

Therefore, he prepared himself for the ultimate test of his power and knowledge which would be to raise the Devil.   He had thought long and hard about it and put it off time and time again but it was the only way.  No one else could give him the power and knowledge he craved.  He knew the price Satan would demand but did not want to pay it.  Nevertheless, the craving for power made him think he could reach a more amicable agreement with the devil and he decided it was worth a try.Therefore he set about making  his preparations. He learnt the right spell.  Collected all the materials he required and readied his equipment in preparation.  

The Midnight Hour

With everything prepared and the approach of the midnight hour the doctor entered his chamber of magical experimentation.  After making special signs and uttering a brief incantation he set  up a lamp  upon the table and over a flame he hung a small cauldron.  Into the cauldron he poured certain liquids of dark properties and dropped various powders and items of dubious qualities.  Some of these items were too gruesome to name.  The powders and liquids were of undoubtedly odious origin possibly even human but he alone knew the true source of these materials.

Raising the Devil

With his brew bubbling he then uttered further incantations.  He continued to repeat the spell over and over while beseeching the powers of darkness for their attention.   He continued like this for over an hour with no sign any dark power or spirit had heard.  However, he persisted and at last his persistence was rewarded. 

The flame beneath the cauldron sprang and flared red then extinguished but the mixture within the cauldron continued to bubble.  Soon a vile vapor rose thick and fast and spread rapidly throughout the chamber.  In the center of the chamber there hovered a thick and unwholesome fog which was darker and denser than the rest.

The Devil’s Answer

Inside the fog the vapors were whirling and twisting forming a dark terrifying figure.  From that form there came a terrible voice that spoke in whispers that cut through the fabric of reality shaking and terrifying the doctor. “Who dares summon Satan from Hell? Step forward and speak. Tell me thy heart’s desire!”

The doctor was almost overcome with fear and awe but managing to master himself stepped boldly forward and said, “It is I that has summoned you for, I would have certain powers that you and only you, can endow.”

The Devil looked into his eyes and knew immediately what powers he yearned for.  

The Price

“Indeed, I can  bestow thee with these powers but you know there is a price to be paid.  Are you willing to pay it?” sneered the Devil.

The doctor faltered and quailed for a moment but quickly mastered himself and asked,  “Name your price and we shall see!”

“Ha! You know the price!” whispered the Devil, “There is only one price and the terms are not negotiable.  Agree that price and I will grant you the powers of your heart’s desire.  Be warned I shall return seven years from today and call upon you to deliver up your very soul to me.  Do you agree?”

The Contract

“Surely that is too high a price,” replied the doctor.

“It is the only price and the terms are not negotiable.  What do you say?” demanded the Devil.

The doctor hesitated realizing trying to bargain with him was hopeless  and said, “Then I must pay that price. I agree to the contract and the price!”

The Devil produced two sheets of paper.  With his long, sharp fingernail, he slit the wrist of the doctor causing blood to seep forth. Dipping his quill into the oozing wound he wrote the contract out on both pages using the doctor’s blood for ink.  With that same quill and ink the doctor signed.  With a look of extreme satisfaction, Satan placed the contract in his cloak and declared,  “Thy wish is granted, enjoy to the full what time you have left it will not be long enough.  Be sure seven years from now I shall return for my fee!”

There was a peal of thunder and a flash of lightning and the Devil was gone.  All that was left behind was the doctor’s copy of the  contract written and signed  in his own blood and the mocking echo of the Devil’s laughter.

Repentance

The Devil was true to his word and from the beginning of the agreement the doctor received all the powers he had yearned for.  He used them to further his own knowledge and skills but instead  of using them to benefit humankind he used it for his own pleasure and leisure.  His life was everything he wanted it to be with power, knowledge, riches and great acclaim.

However, time passed and after a couple of years he still thought he had a long time to enjoy his powers.  Three years passed and then four and he realized that time was passing too quickly.  Five years passed and then six and he was now getting nervous.  Despite his power and knowledge he knew he could not hold or alter time.   Therefore he began to repent his contract with the Devil realizing he had been foolish and selfish and searched for ways of avoiding paying the price.  Seven years passed and he knew he had to come up with something quick but could not think what.   

A Crazy Chance

At last he came up with something, it was but a glimmer of a crazy chance yet it was a crazy chance that might just work.  He consulted his books on astrology and charted the movement of the stars and came to the conclusion it could work.  That afternoon he purchased the fastest and best horse in Longdendale. That evening, as he knew would, Satan appeared before him in his chamber of magic. Satan duly arrived with his usual theatrics but the doctor remained calm as he faced him.

“Are you ready to fulfill the contract,” demanded the Devil.

“Indeed I am, but I am wondering if you are not open to a little wager first?” he asked nonchalantly knowing the Devil loved to gamble.

“Hmm, now just what have you in mind?” asked the Devil his interest aroused.

“I thought maybe a race on horseback to the crossroads. It is one mile to the crossroads and the first to pass the center wins.  If you win you take my soul.  If I win I keep it and you leave me in peace.  But … perhaps, you are not up to such a gamble and I have the fastest horse in Longdendale,” taunted the doctor gently.

Indeed, Satan had a fine black horse that was faster and stronger than any ordinary horse. He loved to race it and he loved to gamble, though it never really was a gamble because he would always win.  He would lay any odds on his horse winning against any challenger.

“A race it is, be outside on horseback in 30 minutes and the race will begin!”  cried the devil excited at the prospect.

The Challenge

The doctor saddled his new horse and waited on the road. Thirty minutes later the Devil appeared by his side mounted on a magnificent black stallion the like never before had been seen on earth. 

“Ah! A truly magnificent steed, but surely you are breaking the spirit of our race by riding an unearthly steed.  No earthly horse could surely match one born and bred in your realm, the challenge cannot go ahead.  You best take my soul here and now!” said the doctor.

The Devil had been looking forward to the race and was disappointed.  He could rightly have taken the doctor’s soul there and then but believed he would have it after the race anyway.  He so loved to race and gamble but rarely got the chance and his face dropped.

The doctor, seeing the look of disappointment on his adversary’s face said,  “Tell you what! How about if you give me a half mile start?”

To begin with  the Devil was not having it.  After some very subtle provocation and a play to his vanity from the doctor he accepted.

“You realize, it is not my normal practice to allow the terms of the contract to be changed, especially when I can rightfully claim payment?  Never before have I given a single minute’s grace when collecting my payment, let alone listen to further proposals to extend the period in the hope of saving their souls.  I have never before accepted any change in terms or payment.  Still, today I fancy some sport and will make an exception in this case.  Therefore, I accept. Let the race begin as soon as you are ready.  The signal shall be a thunderbolt!” said the Devil.

Race With the Devil

So while the Devil remained at the start line the doctor trotted a half mile ahead.  As soon as the Devil saw the doctor had reached the half mile he let fly a thunderbolt that flashed and crashed mightily and the race began.

The Devil spurred his mount forward using all speed while the doctor, determined not to be complacent by the half mile start, spurred his own horse on.  This was just as well for the Devil set off at unbelievable speed and was fast gaining on the doctor.  He reached the half mile point with the doctor not quite making the three quarter of a mile point.  

The Devil was now excited and enjoying himself. Uttering wild shouts and cries he spurred his horse forward, second by second gaining on the doctor.  His opponent, his face grim and set and ever looking over his shoulder encouraged his own steed forward.

With less than a quarter of a mile to go the Devil was but a few yards behind and whooping wildly while the doctor, casting anxious glances back, continued to press his own steed. He desperately wanted to beat the Devil to the ford where a fast flowing stream of water flowed over the road but the chances of this were now slim. 

As the Devil came up fast behind the doctor’s mount he reached forward laughing with glee and grabbed the tail of the doctor’s horse giving it a viscous twist.  The terrified horse cried out in shock and pain and  surged forward.  

Running Water

The Devil kept a grip on the poor beast’s tail trying with all his might to hold it back.  They were approaching the ford where a stream of running water flowed over the road.  Had he seen this, things might have turned out different, but the Devil, being intent on holding on to his challenger’s horse’s tail did not see it.  The terrified beast surged forward again and its tail broke and the horse free from the Devil’s grip took one mighty leap clear over the running steam of water.

The Laws of Magic

The Devil was forced to pull up abruptly.  By the laws of magic and sorcery which even the Devil is obliged to adhere to he could not cross running water in pursuit of a victim.   This law applies to all witches, evil spirits and the like and it must be obeyed.  The doctor raced on to the crossroads to win the race and keep his soul.

In mockery of the Devil the doctor turned and waved joyously at his adversary who was fuming with rage. He now saw how the doctor had tricked and goaded him into the race with this outcome in mind.  He howled with rage at his own gullibility and the doctor’s cleverness.

Too Bad For Heaven, Too Clever For Hell!

Nevertheless, despite his anger there was nothing he could do except ride off on the wings of a storm back to Hell in disgust.  He swore an oath that no mortal from Longdendale would ever again be allowed inside his domain for they were too bad for Heaven and too clever  for Hell! 

© 17/12/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright December 17th, zteve t evans

Faustian Pacts: The Soul of Edgar Astley

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The Faustian Pact

A Faustian pact or bargain is also sometimes known as a Deal with the Devil. This is where someone makes an agreement or contract with the Devil or his demonic representative.  It is named after a character from German literature, legend and folklore named Faust, sometimes known as Dr Faustus or Faustus, who made just such a contract.  The devil grants their material or worldly desires such as riches, knowledge and power, usually for a set length of time, in return for their soul.  The pact must be honored and when that time comes the devil or his representative arrives to take the soul of his contract partner.

Hoghton Tower

Presented here is a retelling of a tale from Goblin Tales of Lancashire, a collection of folktales by James Bowker that appeared as The Demon of the Oak.  For those who like a little bit of history with their folk tales the story is set in an ancient fortified manor in Lancashire, England called Hoghton Tower.  This was the ancestral home of the de Hoghton family descended directly from Harvey de Walter, who was a companion of William the Conqueror. Their female line of descent is also impressive  descending from famous Lady Godiva of Coventry, wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. The setting in time is uncertain but it is known the the land has been in the hands of ancestors of the de Hoghton’s since at least the 12th century and the present  house dates from about 1560–65 and rebuilt and extended between 1862 and 1901. The narrative centers around a young gentleman named Edgar Astley who in the story stayed at the manor and whose actual existence is much more nebulous than that of his hosts.

Edgar Astley

In fact, Edgar was a rather earnest young man whose habit of dressing in black indicated that he was still in mourning for someone dear who had passed away.  The servants of the tower, much like servants everywhere, discussed among themselves the reason for his sombre style of dress and melancholy air. They came to the conclusion he mourned for a woman whom he greatly loved and had deceived him and had married a rival instead of him. The lady in question had died mysteriously soon after for reasons unknown.

The speculations were sufficient to give the young man an aura of mystery and romance among the servants.  This was fueled when it was reported among them that strange colored lights had been seen from his room in the Tower at night.  This increased their suspicion making them wary and uncomfortable with the air of melancholy that he exuded

The more the superstitious servants thought about him the more they saw in him that was strange and abnormal.  They noticed how he would suddenly start out of a gloomy mood when approached making no secret of his desire to avoid where possible all society and companionship.   Even so, no one could ever accuse him of being unfriendly or rude and he was always very kind and patient with the youngsters of the household.  He always found time to chat cordially with the females of the household. When asked he would accompany them on rambles through the woods and countryside  and escort them on excursions to the local towns.

Yet it was noticeable that he did so more out of a sense of duty and chivalry rather than his own pleasure and quickly return to his station under the oak.  There he would read his dark books lost and become lost in dark thoughts. The ladies regarded him with an affectionate pity. They would try to encourage him to join them in more cheerful and sociable activities.  All though he complied he would only bear so much before politely returning to his books and dark dreaming.

The Baronet who was his host and master of the Tower liked him greatly despite his melancholy and strange ways.  Everyone else looked on him with pity. The general consensus was that time alone would eventually heal the darkness that appeared in his soul  and were happy for him to be amongst them. For his part, Edgar appreciated their sympathy and the freedom they allowed him in their home. He came and went as he pleased and the hosts were content to allow him this freedom asking no questions, just accepting him and his ways as they were.

Servant’s Talk

In the servant’s quarters the talk about Edgar was of  very different kind. One particular servant claimed he knew a servant who had known a footman, who had worked for Edgar’s family and there was a tragic story attached to the young man.  Apparently Edgar had once been betrothed to a young lady by the name of Anna.  She was a very attractive lady and had many suitors but she narrowed these down to Edgar and another young man.   She saw both of them at intervals and was very much in love with both but could not decide which she preferred and was well aware which ever one she rejected would be terribly hurt.  

Nonetheless, she enjoyed the attentions of both men and would play them off against each other.  Both suitors had been the best of friends but then a bitter rivalry developed between them for the love of Anna.  Both loved her with a passion and would have done anything in the world to win her favor and it seemed when she accepted Edgar’s proposal of marriage that he had won.  The date was set for the happy event and Edgar was looking forward to spending the rest of his life with the woman of his heart’s desire.

Edgar’s rival was not one to simply accept whatever fate should throw at him and the night before the wedding went to Anna and begged she elope that night with him.   She agreed and the two made off in her father’s coach and horses with all speed heading for Gretna Green.

The next morning word came to Edgar of the disappearance of Anna.  Of course he was devastated. Knowing that it could only have been at the instigation of his rival he took off after them intending a final confrontation with his rival.

Such was the talk in the servant’s quarters and their curiosity towards Edgar grew and grew and were fed by the peculiarity of his own habits.  It had been noticed that he stayed up late at nights in his room and strange lights and sounds could sometimes be seen and heard coming from it.  It was therefore decided that one of them should creep up to his room at midnight and listen at the door and look through the keyhole to try and learn more of this mysterious young man’s behaviour.  To his chagrin it was the servant who knew a servant who knew a footman that worked for Edgar’s family that was chosen for this dubious task. Therefore at the stroke of midnight, wishing he had kept quiet, the servant was sent up stairs to listen at Edgar’s bedroom door and spy through his keyhole.

Once at his station the reluctant spy knelt and put his eye to the keyhole listening intently for any sounds that should come through the door. Through the keyhole he saw that Edgar was seated at a table intently studying an ancient black book he had spread out before him. With one hand he shaded his eyes from a flame that burnt in  a small cauldron upon the table.

The Pale Student

Suddenly he leaned forward and with a quick movement of his hand took a pinch of a bright blue powder  placed in a saucer and sprinkled it upon the flame. The room was filled by strange, sickly aroma while the flame burst upwards with sudden life. The pale student of unhallowed arts turned over a page in the book and began to softly chant strange words unaware he was being watched.  Then he looked puzzled and muttered,

“Strange, I have bat’s blood, the severed hand of a dead man, viper’s venom, mandrake root and the flesh of a newt.  These are the ingredients stated and yet I still fail. Must I use the spell of spells at the risk of losing my life?

Think, man! What  is there for one such as me to fear in death? So far I remain unharmed from my experiments but were it otherwise I must still proceed to the bitter end.

There was a time when I would have given all my future happiness for her to be called by my name.  What is there left in this empty life for me that I should fear in this desperate enterprise to gain one last glimpse of her lovely face?”

As the pale student bent over the book studying the dreadful words on the cracked pages for the spy at the door the silence was almost palpable.  The night appeared to stand still and a harsh, rasping voice from the air cut through the silence saying,

Answer truly, will you give your very soul in exchange for a glimpse and a brief exchange of speech for she who you were once betrothed.”

The pale student quickly jumped to his feet excited and declared,

“Make no mistake, what ever you are, whoever you are, if you deliver her to me for a glimpse, a  brief word or two for the briefest of time my soul shall be yours forever!”

The night,  inside the house and outside, fell silent and the world seemed to stand still.  The spy at the door could hear the beating of his own heart and the the disembodied voice spoke once again,

“So it shall be! You have one last spell left that you must invoke at midnight beneath the spreading arm of the old oak and there and then shall you be rewarded with your heart’s desire.   Dare you look upon my face?”

replied the pale student.

“Devil or demon, whatever kind of beast you may be, I have no fear of seeing you”  

This was not the case for the spy at the keyhole who knelt shivering in fear at what he was witnessing and as soon as the lights flared a lurid blue he fell in a faint at his station by the door.

The Spy Discovered

When the spying servant finally came to he found himself inside the dread room with the pale student standing over him demanding,

“Who are you?  Why do you spy on me and what have you seen?  Tell me all, tell me true!”

Trembling in fear the terrified servant told him everything he had seen and heard while  Edgar listened gravely. When the servant had finished he would not allow him to leave until he had sworn on all that he held valuable that he would not tell a soul of what he had seen and heard that night.  To ensure the complete silence of the servant Edgar bound him by several terrifying threats of what would happen should he speak and then gave further instructions.

When the servant returned to the servant’s quarter his fellows all wanted to know what he had seen and heard.  They were disappointed when he told them he had spied so long and seen nothing and overcome with fatigue and boredom fallen asleep at his station.  Nevertheless, this appeared to satisfy his eager friends who could not help wondering what would have happened should he have been discovered.

The day passed in much the same way  as other days with the only notable exception being Edgar’s absence from the table under the old oak.  As evening fell dark clouds swept in from the distant sea and the wind began to rise and shake the old oak in its rage.

As usual the household had retired at eleven that night and only Edgar and one other were awake.  Edgar sat in his room at studying intensely the black book, but every now and then glancing impatiently at the clock.  At last he stood up and sighing to himself said,

 “The time I have longed for draws near.  Once again we shall meet!”

Taking up his small cauldron, the book and a few other items he left his room and went down the ancient staircase.  As he did so the servant stepped from the shadows and followed him. Calmly walking down to the old oak Edgar place his items at the foot of the tree and then taking a hazel wand from his pocket drew a circle around him and the servant.  Placing some red powder in the cauldron he put it down before him. As he did so a red flame leapt up from cauldron blazing with a steady flame while the wind roared in fury all around.

The Spell

In the gateway of the tower the chained guard dogs howled mournfully but Edgar pressed on with his task, striking the ground three time with his hazel wand, crying,

“Anna my love, my heart’s desire I summon thee!  Hear my words and obey, come to me this night!”

No sooner had he stopped speaking when the filmy figure of a most beautiful child appeared and floated around the outside of the circle.  The servant groaned in fear and sunk to his knees covering his eyes. The necromancer took no notice and as lightning flashed and thunder rolled he began incanting a new spell before finishing with these words,

“Soul of Anna, spirit of my love, spirit of my heart’s desire, I summon thee!  Come to me with all haste and without deceit and without power over my earthly body, spirit or soul.  May the shadow of death fall upon thee for ever if you refuse! Come now to me”!

With these last word the storm abated and all around fell to brooding silence. Suddenly the flame in the cauldron flared upwards several yards in height and a sweet voice could be heard engaged in a melodious chant.   A rasping, invisible voice said,

“Are you ready to behold the dead?

“I am ready!”

Before his eyes a column of mist formed and swirled and in that column slowly appeared the form and face of a beautiful woman still wrapped in her burial shroud.  She looked at him with sad, mournful eyes and asked,

“Why, Egar, why”

“Because I loved you, Anna! Did you love me?”

“I did!”

“And did you love him Anna, did you really love him?

“I do!”

Edgar gazed upon the ghost of his betrothed in tortured silence for some time. Slowly he reached out into the mist trying to embrace her.  As he did so the servant fainted at his feet as if struck down by death and thunder broke the silence.

“Edgar Astley, thy time is done and thou art mine forever!”

hissed a harsh disembodied voice at his side.  As these word were spoken the door of the tower were flung wide open and out rushed the baronet followed by his servants.

“Keep back, keep back! Save yourselves!”

“We would save you too! In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti!”  

cried the baronet striding forward to the circle holding a silver crucifix before him. No sooner had he spoken when the thunder fell quiet and the lightning ceased to flash and the moon broke through the dark clouds throwing down a soft light.

The servant was found face down trembling in the circle and carried indoors.  Edgar was found leaning against the trunk of the old oak. His eyes glazed and fixed upon the spot in the air he had last seen the ghost of his betrothed.  Gently the baronet took him by the hand and led him away as one would lead an innocent and trusting child. All reason and purpose had left his mind and his body was but an empty husk for he had gained his heart’s desire but in doing so given away his soul.

© 06/03/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

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